Michael Jackson’s brothers Jackie, Marlon and Tito and his nephew Taj speak out against HBO child sex abuse documentary “Leaving Neverland.”
Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – To combat a damning new documentary hitting HBO Sunday, Michael Jackson’s family has come out swinging.
“Leaving Neverland” has been making waves since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Over nearly four hours, the film alleges that Jackson, who died in 2009 at age 50, sexually abused two men starting when they were ages seven and 10, and continued the abuse into their teens.
Accusers Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, say the superstar had them sleep in his bed, often plied them with alcohol and pornography before molesting them and even recorded one of his sexual encounters with Safechuck.
Both say they’ve suffered from severe depression in the intervening years. Their accounts are corroborated by their families and wives, who witnessed their adult trauma. Yet both men have previously denied Jackson ever sexually abused them; Safechuck as a child, and Robson, most recently under oath as an adult, during Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial.
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And that’s what the Jackson family would like audiences to focus on, even though Michael’s brothers say they haven’t seen “Leaving Neverland.”
“I have no interest in watching something that has no validity to it,” says Marlon Jackson dismissively, sitting at the Four Seasons hotel with his brothers Tito and Jackie.
Michael’s nephew Taj, Tito’s son, is present, too. He’s the only one who wanted to watch the documentary before it aired. “Because I would be able to probably pick it apart, scene by scene,” says Taj, who knew Robson personally. “I think they’re counting on the masses to see it and then our voices to be drowned out.”
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As before, the Jackson clan denies Jackson ever molested young boys. He was acquitted of such charges in 2005 and settled similar claims in 1994 (for a reported $22 million, despite admitting no wrongdoing). They slam the new documentary (Sunday and Monday, 8 EST/PST) as absurdly one-sided, noting that its director, Dan Reed, never requested interviews with any of the late star’s family or friends.
“They weren’t interested in gathering any evidence that wouldn’t corroborate what they’re saying,” says Marlon. “That wasn’t the plan. It was a one-sided documentary.”
But the closed-door nature of sexual abuse is precisely why it can be so hard to corroborate, or refute. How can the Jacksons be so sure it never happened?
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Marlon says the family – and a team of attorneys, who put Robson on the stand to defend Jackson in 2005 – has been through all of this before. The surviving Jackson brothers don’t know Safechuck, they say, but Taj did, and calls Robson’s changed narrative the “ultimate betrayal.”
Family members have their own opinions about why Robson’s story has changed. The choreographer was grateful for an invitation to Jackson’s memorial – he attended with his family, Taj says – and danced “right behind” Janet Jackson for a subsequent tribute at MTV’s Video Music Awards. He even “wanted to get close to MJ’s kids” in 2009, says Taj.
But things soured, the family says, alleging that when Robson was passed over to direct and choreograph Cirque du Soleil’s “One” show spotlighting Michael in Las Vegas, his financial troubles began. That’s when they say Robson began selling off his Jackson memorabilia and pitching a book with allegations against Michael, before suing the family in 2013.
“It’s never been about justice for him,” says Taj. “It’s always been about fame and money.”
The accusers’ lawyer, Vince Finaldi, scoffs at the suggested timeline: “It’s just another example of the Jackson press machine manipulating facts and telling half-truths in order to try and discredit a victim,” he says.
Finaldi says Robson was hired to choreograph the “One” show, but suffered a nervous breakdown and dropped out.
As described in “Leaving Neverland,” “after the birth of his son, he started having visions of his son being abused by Michael Jackson and reflecting on the abuse that he suffered, and realizing how bad that was from a different perspective,” says Finaldi. Robson pulled away from the entertainment industry, which he found triggering. “Did he suffer financial stresses because of it? Absolutely. But he’s never been fired from a job in his life.”
But the documentary, with graphic descriptions of alleged sexual abuse, prompts direct questions:
Was Michael Jackson ever sexually abused as a child? The brothers shake their heads. “Never,” says Jackie.
In “Leaving Neverland,” it’s alleged that the pop star would spend five or six hours at a time on the phone with young children. Doesn’t his family find this odd?
Actor Corey Feldman doesn’t want to watch controversial Michael Jackson documentary “Leaving Neverland,” in which two men allege Jackson abused them as children. The Jackson estate has denounced the documentary for rehashing “discredited allegations.” (Jan. 31)
No, they say. “He would talk to me and my brothers for hours and hours,” says Taj. “My uncle didn’t have a (traditional) childhood, so he lived vicariously through children. He’d say to me, ‘You’re so lucky you had a birthday party, what was it like?’…He was constantly trying to reclaim his childhood, and I don’t think people understand that, because people didn’t live though Michael Jackson’s life.”
Do they acknowledge that their brother’s behavior was, at the very least, eccentric when it came to spending time with children, including nights in his bed?
Marlon Jackson calls it all innocent. “Taj is the same age as all these kids they used to spend nights (with) all the time. A bunch of kids would come over and have pillow fights, (watch) “Three Stooges,” swim, all this stuff. Watching movies, they’re tired, they’d fall asleep.”
“(Marlon’s) children were there,” says Jackie. “My kids were there. Tito’s children were there.”
Following accusations of sexual misconduct, did the brothers ever suggest Michael change his behavior with children, whose hands he often held in public?
“We didn’t really have to,” says Jackie. “Because I knew my brother and what his mission was all about, was helping children, helping people around the world.”
The family calls Jackson an easy target, made easier now because under American legal system, it’s not possible to sue, shame or slander a dead man. The brothers point to Michael’s search to reclaim his childhood, international charity work, and how he’d open up Neverland to nearby hospitals and schools while he was touring.
At one point, the interview pauses as a siren passes outside of the Four Seasons hotel.
“That’s the police going to get Wade,” Marlon chuckles.
What “Leaving Neverland” really comes down to, they insist, is money, claiming Robson and Safechuck are after a piece of the Jackson estate. (Although a judge dismissed their case in probate court this year, both men are appealing, and a hearing is expected later this year)
The film will have no effect on the lawsuit, Finaldi, told USA TODAY earlier this month. But he insists they will get a trial. How much do they want from the estate? “They are seeking whatever the jury sees fit” to award them.
Conversely, family members deny they’re protecting their own financial interests by hitting back at the fresh accusations.
“This is something we’re supposed to do; it’s our brother. I know my brother,” says Jackie Jackson. “He’s not like that. And as far as financially, Michael’s money goes to his children. If something ever happened to me, my money’s going to my children, the same way. His money goes to his kids and all his foundations. That’s the way it’s set up. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Still, doesn’t the family risk damage if the accusations of pedophilia tarnish the family’s legacy?
They shake their heads. “The legacy and the fans around the world, this is not going to do anything to them because they know the truth,” says Taj.
Contributing: Maria Puente
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