One of the most moving aspects of Leaving Neverland, the documentary detailing the alleged abuse of two little boys by pop star Michael Jackson, is the devastation, guilt and regret that has engulfed their families. When they were given a preview in Los Angeles, Joy Robson could not bear to listen to her son’s testimony: she asked director Dan Reed to fast forward through the graphic detail.
Robson’s son Wade met Jackson in Australia when he was five years old, and had just started performing as a dancer. Two years later, when the family moved to Los Angeles, Jackson invited them to stay at Neverland, his Disney-esque ranch in California. James Safechuck was nine when he made a Pepsi advertisement with Jackson: his family was also invited to be part of the singer’s private world.
“We were so excited. This was big for us,” recalls Stephanie Safechuck. “No one could befriend him [Jackson], but for him to want to be our friend… it was ‘Oh my God, how lucky are we?’”
So the parents were as star struck as the children: but over time, the relationship became deeper and more emotional. Jackson appeared vulnerable, and sometimes lonely. Stephanie says he sometimes stayed the night, and she used to wash his clothes. Joy remembers Wade and Jackson spending hours playing games and watching cartoons – it never crossed her mind that there was anything amiss.
“Jackson not only groomed the little boys but groomed their mothers too,” Reed explains. “They ended up believing he was like a son.”
From a distance, that may be hard to believe. What did they think they were doing, letting their precious sons spend hours – and sometimes nights – alone with a grown man? But put cynicism and suspicion aside. Whatever you choose to believe about the allegations – given that Jackson was found innocent at two trials and his family and fans continue to defend him - experts say the slow, insidious way he worked his charm on the families, as detailed in the film, looks like a masterclass in paedophile behaviour.
It’s no accident that child abusers are often found in positions of trust: sports coaches, teachers, priests, uncles and aunties or friendly next door neighbours. Their modus operandi is to get to know the parents as well as the child and the trust-building can go on for months, or even years, before they make their move.
One of the most bizarre examples is chronicled in a Netflix documentary, Abducted in Plain Sight, which tells the story of the kidnap of 12-year-old Jan Broberg in 1974, by a family friend. Broberg’s devoutly-religious parents, Bob and Mary-Ann, were so in thrall to fellow churchgoer Robert Berchtold, that when he offered to pick up Jan from her piano lesson and take her horseriding – and then disappeared – it was several days before they alerted the police. Even then, they refused to believe he had done anything wrong.
Jan returned home, but Berchtold later abducted her again. In the meantime, such was their naivety, he managed to persuade her parents that his “therapy” necessitated being allowed to sleep in her bed.
In a study of 100 convicted sex abusers, Professor Kevin Browne, director of the centre for forensic and family psychology at Nottingham University’s School of Medicine, found the most common way they got near their victims was babysitting – a tactic used by some 44 per cent of those surveyed.
Reassuring parents that a child is safe in your care is the surest way to escape suspicion and also has a built-in safety mechanism, Prof Browne says. “If a child is abused or raped by a stranger you can tell your parents, knowing they will support you. It’s much harder to accuse someone they love or trust. We advise police never to interview a child with the mother present because the child will minimise what happened.”
“These families would have been honoured and pleased by Michael Jackson’s attention. It’s no surprise it took so long for their sons to speak out.” His inclination is to believe Robson and Safechuck. Adults sometimes make false accusations as part of custody cases or disputes, he says, but such falsehoods from children are rare.
Where teachers are concerned, what parents does not want to hear their little darling is a promising concert pianist or Olympic athlete? And of course they will agree to those extra (private) lessons, which they have been assured are necessary for their budding prodigy.
In 2017, actress Hayley McGregor published Teacher’s Pet, a memoir detailing an affair with her drama teacher in the mid-1990s, which began when she was just 13 (the man concerned was later tried and pleaded guilty to five counts of indecent assault). In an interview she told me how “Mr Willson” – as she continued to call him even when they were having sex – groomed her parents every bit as avidly as he had pursued her.
She had told him her father supported Leeds United, and so he greeted the family at parents’ evening by saying “Your daughter is brilliant! Now, about Leeds…”
Before she knew it her father Neil, a fireman, and Willson were going to football matches. Willson was allowed to drive her home after evening rehearsals. The family once stayed at Willson’s house (the first time they had full sex – with her parents asleep upstairs). Her unsuspecting father even asked the teacher to perform a skit at her 21st birthday party, “so he’s right there in our family videos”.
When her parents discovered the truth, they were horrified. “They feel so betrayed. My brother was nine years younger and very impressionable, he adored the man.”
Last year, football coach Barry Bennell was convicted of 43 courts of historical sexual abuse. Like Jackson, he was able to dazzle those in his wake. Steve Fleet, a fellow coach who sensed something was wrong, said later: “I could see it wasn’t healthy. In fact, I’d think: ‘How can other people not see what he is?’ But a lot of people are blinded by fame and fortune. The kids, of course, were young and naïve. The parents were all so desperate for success and the boys were starry-eyed because of his background at Chelsea. He was a circus act, juggling with the ball, and he fascinated young people. But he fascinated their parents, too.”
Professor Daniel Wilcox, a clinical forensic psychologist, has worked with many abusers and victims, and says it’s easy to see why Robson and Safechuck’s parents grew fond of Jackson: “He had a Peter Pan quality. Yes, he was a man but when you looked at him it was hard to make out what age he was. He nurtured a sense of innocence. He did not present as a threat.”
But the reality is that any relationship that involves such an imbalance of power can go awry. “We’ve seen it even with staff giving aid to people suffering poverty and trauma. If you’re hungry, or you want something badly enough you’ll put up with an awful lot.”
As for the families: “Sometimes we just see what we want to see. We have to learn to open our eyes – then open them again.” How Robson and Safechuck’s mothers must wish they had done just that.
Leaving Neverland is on Channel 4, March 6 & 7, 9pm