After HBO aired the second part of the highly controversial Leaving Neverland Monday night, the cable network broadcast a one-hour discussion featuring Wade Robson and James Safechuck, whose abuse allegations regarding Michael Jackson were the documentary’s subjects. Also in attendance was Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed. Oprah Winfrey moderated the discussion in front of a live audience of over 100 child sexual abuse survivors.
Winfrey said she was interested in hosting this after-show special, titled After Neverland, because of the documentary’s frank discussion of abuse and the grooming that often comes with it—she said she felt the documentary transcended Michael Jackson. She recalled a discussion with Reed in which she told him, “Dan you were able to illustrate in these four hours what I tried to illustrate in 217 [episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show],” referring to the hours and hours of television she taped on the subject of sexual abuse.
Winfrey asked Robson and Safechuck some tough questions about their previous public denials of Jackson’s misconduct. Both provided statements supporting Jackson in his 1993 case (that was eventually settled out of court) when Jordan Chandler accused him of molestation, and Robson testified for the defense at Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial. She wondered what their understanding of the abuse was from a morality perspective.
“I didn’t think of it as good or bad,” said Safechuck, referring to his decision not to testify in the 2005 criminal case. “It was that old sort of wiring of, ‘If you’re caught, your life will be over.’ And so I’m in my mid-20s and I’m just trying to start a life. So then to be thrown into that, it was just too much to handle. When I said no, I wasn’t trying to do the right thing. I was just afraid. It was self-preservation.” Safechuck appeared to be disturbed and struggling throughout the hourlong conversation.
“I had no understanding of it being abuse,” said Robson at another point in the special. “I loved Michael, and all the times that I testified and the many, many times that I gushed over him publicly in interviews or whatever it may be, that was from a real place. While never forgetting any of the sexual details that happened between us but having no understanding that it was abuse, having no concept in my mind that anything about Michael could ever be bad. Anything that Michael did was right to me for so many years.”
Winfrey asked if Robson’s 2005 testimony, which occurred when he was 22, was a product of thinking Jackson didn’t do anything bad to him, or if he was just defending Jackson because of his love.
“I didn’t think about it as far as that concept,” said Robson. “I couldn’t, even. I know this now but I couldn’t even go there. I couldn’t question Michael. If I was to question Michael and my story with Michael, my life with Michael, it would mean I would have to question everything in my life.”
Winfrey also questioned Robson’s and Safechuck’s potential financial stake in coming forward with their allegations, of which they’ve been accused by Jackson supporters and family members. Reed said they had not been compensated for their participation in the documentary, and that such a financial stake was “hypothetical.”
“When you filed the lawsuit in 2013, you were looking for financial...” said Winfrey, referring to litigation by Robson against Jackson’s estate. (Safechuck also sued. The cases were dismissed but have been appealed.)
Robson said his motivation to sue was his desire for “a credible, powerful platform” to tell his story “where [the estate] would have to listen” and be held accountable.
Winfrey asked if he felt that he was owed money, and Robson said, “That wasn’t a thought of mine, it isn’t a thought of mine,” he said. “It’s just that... the legal system is the place where.. .what other scenario was the estate, was Michael’s companies going to have to listen?... Also a big piece for me was Michael trained me and forced me to tell the lie for so many years, particularly on the stand, and those were really traumatizing experiences for me that had a huge impact on the rest of my life. So the feeling was: I want an opportunity to re-process that experience. I want to get on the stand again ‘cause now I’m able to tell the truth.”
Winfrey recalled her own experience with sexual abuse, and illustrated why hearing stories like those presented in Leaving Neverland can be so helpful to survivors. “I was 42 years old, actually, and I was doing a show with men who had molested their children and stepchildren,” she said. “And it wasn’t until one of the child molesters, the accused, said out loud how he had practiced grooming his 13-year-old daughter that I had a lightbulb moment and finally realized, at 42, that it was not my fault.”
Discussing the insidiousness of the grooming process, Winfrey said, “I have said for years that if the abuser is any good, you won’t know it’s happened... If the abuser is any good, he or she is going to make you feel like you’re part of it.”
Regarding that residual grief, Winfrey asked if Robson and Safechuck forgave themselves; Robson says that he has, while Safechuck said, “I still struggle.” They talked about their difficulties forgiving their mothers, both saying that they’re on the path to doing so.
Winfrey asked if they’ve forgiven Michael Jackson. Robson said, “Also on the path.” Safechuck said, “You know what’s strange? I felt guilt this weekend—like I let him down. It’s still there. That shadow’s still there.”