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Days ahead of the explosive Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland airing on HBO, Oprah Winfrey sat down with the film’s accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, and director, Dan Reed, on Wednesday evening in New York for an emotional discussion about child sex abuse, which Winfrey called “a scourge on humanity.”
Some 100 sex abuse survivors greeted Robson and Safechuck with multiple standing ovations after the four-hour documentary wrapped and led into Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland, which will air on HBO on March 4, following the conclusion of the two-part film.
Winfrey, a longtime advocate for victims of child sexual abuse who featured the topic on 217 episodes of her long-running titular talk show, said she reached out to Reed via email after seeing the film. “I said, ‘Dan, you were able to illustrate in these four hours what I’ve tried to explain in 217,” Winfrey recalled and added, “this moment transcends Michael Jackson.”
Leaving Neverland, which will begin airing on March 3, details the accounts of Robson, an Australian child who says he was molested by the so-called King of Pop from the ages of 7-14, and child commercial actor Safechuck, who says his abuse at the hands of Jackson began at the age of 10. Both men previously testified on behalf of Jackson during a separate child molestation trial, which the Jackson estate and family frequently point to as proof that the men are now lying.
But having Winfrey conduct the conversation with the two accusers and Reed offered the kind of endorsement that makes the claims impossible to ignore. Winfrey talked at length about the “grooming” process, the subsequent conflicting feelings about the abuse and how adult predators train children to lie. Winfrey’s best friend Gayle King, who conducted an interview with Robson and Safechuck that aired on CBS on Thursday, sat in the audience and was referenced by Winfrey multiple times.
“I remember when Gayle’s children were smaller and I would always talk about this subject, and she would tell me, ‘My kids aren’t going to let themselves be hurt. They’re not going to let themselves be punished,'” Winfrey explained. “So many parents don’t understand, it doesn’t feel like hurt.”
The audience, which represented an even split of men and women and was racially mixed, erupted in applause during the scene in the film when Safechuck’s mother recalls learning of Jackson’s death in 2009 and rejoicing at the fact that he couldn’t hurt another child again. The audience also cheered heartily when Winfrey called on former NFL linebacker Al Chesley to recount his story of being molested as a teen by a neighborhood police officer — a secret he kept for three decades.
Reed addressed the family and estate’s criticism of the fact that he did not include their perspective in Leaving Neverland.
“What is at issue here is what happened when the bedroom door closed and the lights went out. So, who knows about that? What happened is between Wade and Michael and James and Michael,” he said. “What is the journalistic value of interviewing someone saying, ‘Michael was a really nice guy. He never did anything to a child.’ And that person has a gigantic vested interest, a financial interest, in smearing these two young men.”
To that, Winfrey asked if there was anyone ever present in the room at the time of the sexual abuse. Both men said no.
Safechuck and Robson, who are both now married and are fathers, talked about the ensuing conflicted emotions they felt after the alleged abuse at the hands of Jackson. “When the abuse started on tour, I thought, ‘Am I gay?’ I was also developing a crush on [Jackson backup singer] Sheryl Crow at the time,” said Safechuck.
Winfrey noted the backlash in response to the film’s premiere in Sundance in January and her own involvement. “All the fans and the estate. You guys know you’re gonna get it, right? I’m gonna get it. Are you prepared for that?” she asked.
Robson responded that it already has been difficult. “I just received another death threat last night,” he said.
At the end of the 90-minute talk, both men said they were heartened by the positive reaction to their coming forward. Robson, who is a successful choreographer who has worked with Britney Spears among other pop stars, says the Sundance standing ovation was particularly gratifying.
“I realized I’d never witnessed public support before,” he said. “Being with survivors [here] is why you do the movie.”
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