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What ‘Leaving Neverland’ Teaches Us About How Child Predators Work

Whether you believe Michael Jackson is guilty or innocent, there’s a lot viewers can learn about child sex abuse and predators from watching “Leaving Neverland.”

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt
Michael Jackson

Lavish gifts and endless compliments. Group activities that soon turned to one-on-one hangouts and private sleepovers, and then, alleged abuse that two men have claimed continued on for years.

HBO’s two-part documentary “Leaving Neverland” tells the stories of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claim to have been molested by pop icon Michael Jackson during their childhoods. While the film has reignited furious debate over the child molestation accusations that followed Jackson for the latter half of his career, the film also offered an eye-opening look at how child predators operate — right under the noses of other adults and hiding behind the illusion of love and friendship.

Jackson, who was acquitted on child molestation charges in 2005, maintained his innocence before his death in 2009. His family continues to do so, having repeatedly denied the claims made in HBO’s documentary and even filing an anti-disparagement lawsuit against the network for deciding to air it in the first place.

Still, the impact of “Leaving Neverland” extends far beyond the debates the film has sparked, as Oprah Winfrey pointed out in her “After Neverland” special.

“It’s about this thing, this insidious pattern that’s happening in our culture that we refuse to look at,” she said.

Here are six things we can all learn about child sex abuse and how predators operate from “Leaving Neverland” — even if you think Jackson is innocent.

1. Child sex abuse is more common than you may think

Unfortunately, what Robson and Safechuck alleged to have happened to them as children happens to hundreds of kids every day. A child is sexually assaulted every 9 minutes, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Robson and Safechuck share their stories with one in six men, which is the number of men who have experienced sexual abuse or assault, either as children or adults, according to the nonprofit organization, 1in6. Childhood sexual abuse, specifically, continues to be a disturbingly common occurrence: one in nine girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused or assaulted by an adult, while one in 53 boys have, RAINN reports.

Despite how common childhood sexual abuse is, it still isn’t widely talked about, a fact that Oprah Winfrey touched on in “After Neverland.”

“Everybody thinks you’re going to look a certain way [after you’ve been abused],” Winfrey said. “You’re going to look like you’ve been battered, look like somebody raped you, when in fact, it is the holding of the secret, it’s the shame, it’s the confusion, it’s the guilt, it’s the depression, and then the nervous breakdown that comes to so many people.”

2. Child sex abuse often starts small

“Grooming” is often the first step of child sex abuse. The National Center for Victims of Crime describes grooming as the methodical process that abusers use to gain the trust of their victims and their victim’s families. This stage can include getting close to the potential victim, isolating them from others, and introducing seemingly non-threatening secrets into their relationship, all before any sexual contact occurs.

Howard Fradkin, Ph.D, is a leading expert on male survivors of sexual assault, and explained how grooming may look during the “After Neverland” special.

“Grooming starts first with the perpetrator convincing the person that they’re safe and that, in your cases and in many cases, they convince the whole family that, ‘You’re safe with me. I have your best interests at heart, I just wanna help you guys succeed and be happy,’ and all that stuff,” he explained. “And then they teach you to be special … ‘You’re special, you’re the only one, I bought Neverland for you.’”

Then comes “gradual introduction” to sexual touching, Fradkin said. It can begin with roughhousing, then touching that isn’t explicitly sexual — yet — before moving into explicitly inappropriate and sexual touching, he said.

3. Children are often manipulated into protecting their abusers

Children who have been abused have often been made to feel, by their abuser, that if the truth is revealed, they will be the ones who get into trouble, according to The Center for Behavioral Intervention in Beaverton, Oregon. Predators are also known to pressure their victims into silence by making the child feel as if they need to protect their abusers out of “love.”

It’s a scenario that Robson described in detail during “After Neverland,” claiming that Jackson started “training” him at the start of their relationship to keep the alleged abuse a secret.

“It was, ‘If anybody ever finds out what we’re doing, we’ll both go to jail for the rest of our lives,’ so I was terrified for myself as well, but also terrified for him,” he said. “I loved him and I wanted to protect him, and in my mind, up until whatever it was, six years or so ago, I was going to take what truly happened to my grave. No question.”

This is common behavior, Dr. Sue Cornbluth, a certified parenting expert, author, and radio show host, told Oxygen.com.

“Most of the time, victims feel that they need to protect their abusers. This is mostly due to the fear of what will happen to them by the abuser if they do tell. In addition, they do not tell because of their own shame surrounding the abuse and their skewed thoughts that they are responsible for the abuse. They feel guilty,” she said.

4. Abusers are known to form relationships with their victim's parents

Predators will often put in a lot of effort to get close to their victim’s family and spend excessive amounts of time with them, Cornbluth said.

“Predators want to build ‘trust’ with the child’s parents. Once trust is built with the parents, the parents are more apt to allow the child to spend time with the predator. This is a very common manipulation tactic,” she said.

It’s a manipulation technique that Robson, Safechuck, and their families described in detail during the HBO specials. Robson’s mother Joy said that she felt as if she and Michael “had a relationship outside of his relationship with Wade,” and her son agreed.

“He spent a lot of time developing a special relationship with my mother, also with my sister,” Robson said, and Safechuck agreed that Jackson also spent “a lot of time” with his parents as well.

However, even as they try to build relationships with their victim’s family, predators will also work to isolate their victim from everyone else, which is behavior that Safechuck also attributed to Jackson.

“At the time the sexual relationship is growing, he’s working on pushing you away from your parents, pushing you away from everybody else, and it feels more like, like it’s just you and him,” Safechuck claimed.

5. Abusers often manipulate their victims using gifts

“Gift giving is among the number one manipulation tactic when it comes to abusing children,” Cornbluth said. “Pedophiles will use gifts, toys, drugs, [and] money to either groom the child initially or use them again to continue the abuse cycle. Young minds are impressionable and easily manipulated. Although Jackson was never found guilty of being a predator, Neverland Ranch itself was certainly alluring for children.

Robson’s and Safechuck’s families described feeling awestruck when they first visited Neverland, Jackson’s home that doubled as a personal amusement park, complete with carnival rides, a train station, and petting zoo. Besides opening up his vast property to Robson, Safechuck, and their families, Jackson was also a lavish gift giver; Robson recalled that Jackson often allowed he and his sister to buy whatever they wanted at any store.

“Every time we enter a place, like, ‘Look around and you can get anything you want. Get everything,’ you know?” he said. With Jackson, they were able to go to stores and fill the carts with whatever they wanted, he said. But even at that time, Robson’s mother and sister were sleeping away from Robson, who slept with Jackson, they said. Robson said that Jackson would sexually abuse him while his mother was in the next room.

Safechuck described not only being given expensive gifts, but claimed that Jackson specifically used those gifts to persuade him to perform sexual acts.

“I was really into jewelry and he would reward me with jewelry for doing sexual acts for him. He would say that I need to sell him some,” he said.

6. Children may be hesitant to admit what’s happening

There are many reasons children may keep quiet about the abuse they’ve endured. In fact, they may not even recognize it as abuse at all, especially if they feel physical pleasure during the abuse, which can lead to confusion and can increase the likelihood that they will keep quiet about what’s happening, according to Stop It Now!, a non-profit organization committed to preventing child sex abuse.

Cornbluth attributed as much to children's natural inclination to trust.

“Children are trusting individuals by nature. They do not understand that the grooming — gift giving, attention — is a prelude to abuse. The predator blurs boundaries and often tells the child, ‘You trust me, don’t you? I would never hurt you. What we are doing is okay,’” Cornbluth said.

Robson said during “After Neverland” that he was an adult when he came to think of Jackson's alleged actions as child sex abuse.

“When the abuse started, when I was 11, even when I was 22 and later, I had no understanding that what Michael did to me sexually was abuse. I had no concept of it being that,” he said. “From night one of the abuse, of the sexual stuff that Michael did to me, he told me that it was love. He told me that he loved me, and that God brought us together.”

“I was a little boy from Australia and Michael was God to me,” he said, and by extension, anything Jackson said to him was considered “gospel.”

Cornbluth advises parents to talk to their children about the warning signs of abuse, starting from an early age, and to watch for signs that your child may be in danger. Children who are being sexually abused are more likely to wet the bed or soil their clothing, and they may seem anxious, aggressive, clingy, secretive and/or withdrawn, she explained. Parents should also try and be aware of any new people in their child’s life, and to be wary of any adult sharing inappropriate or private information with a child.

For survivors of sexual abuse and assault, help is available by calling the national sexual assault helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE.