Despite Michael Jackson's alleged abuse of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the two men said they still feel protective of the late star

By Brianne Tracy and Mary Green
March 01, 2019 11:05 PM
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More than two decades after Michael Jackson’s alleged abuse ended, his two accusers still feel protective over the late star.

During the taping of Oprah Winfrey’s interview special, Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland — which will air immediately after the documentary, Leaving Neverland, makes its television debut on HBO over the weekend — the two accusers, Wade Robson, 36, and James Safechuck, 40, detailed the lasting effects of Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse and “grooming” of them.

When Winfrey asked if they’ve forgiven Jackson, Robson said he was “on the path” to forgiveness. Safechuck, on the other hand, brought up his feelings about speaking out and said: “I felt guilt this weekend, like I let him down. It’s still there, and the shadow is still there.”

Wade Robson, James Safechuck and Oprah Winfrey
Bennett Raglin for Own Network

In Leaving Neverland, Robson and Safechuck allege Jackson repeatedly molested them as boys. The documentary garnered significant buzz upon its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month, and will be broadcast on HBO in two parts airing on Sunday and Monday. (The Jackson family has filed a lawsuit against HBO and in a CBS This Morning interview with Gayle King, which aired on Wednesday, the singer’s brothers, Tito, Marlon, and Jackie Jackson, as well as Jackson’s nephew, Taj Jackson — denounced the film and Robson and Safechuck’s claims.)

Before launching into her interview, Winfrey, 65, first addressed her audience, which included survivors of sexual abuse who had just screened the film. She said, “as you just saw in Leaving Neverland that as young boys, these two men did not feel abuse until much later on in life. And when you are a child — this is the message I want every parent to hear — you don’t have the language to explain what is happening to you because you’ve been seduced and entrapped.”

To begin the interview, Winfrey questioned Robson about why he testified when he was 11 years old in Jackson’s 2005 trial on child-molestation charges saying that Jackson had never acted inappropriately towards him. Jackson was ultimately acquitted in the 2005 trial on all charges.

“I had no understanding that what Michael did to me sexually was abuse,” Robson explained. “I had no concept of it being that. 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 this little boy from the other side of the world in Australia. Michael was God to me…anything Michael was going to say to me was gospel to me.”

Dan Reed, Wade Robson, James Safechuck and Oprah Winfrey
Bennett Raglin for Own Network

Robson later added, that at the time, “I was so narrowly focused on my training to be a soldier for Michael and protect him that I couldn’t think about anybody else.”

The producer and director of the documentary, Dan Reed — who also participated in Winfrey’s interview special — explained that the documentary highlights the complicated relationship between the abused and their perpetrators.

“The opening minutes of the film are these two guys saying what a wonderful, warm, kind, loving, generous person Michael was and he sexually abused them for seven years,” he said. “Those two truths are both present in this story, and it’s a complicated truth. But I think once people understand that an abuser can be both your best friend, your mentor, and your idol and your lover, and that can happen while you’re a child, and you never really disentangle those two things. That’s a painful thing to have to confront.”

Dan Reed, Wade Robson, James Safechuck and Oprah Winfrey
Bennett Raglin for Own Network

Winfrey described how the film makes Jackson’s alleged “grooming process” clear, particularly through Safechuck’s example of when he and Jackson had a marriage ceremony with rings and handwritten vows.

“That moment was part of him telling me we’ll be together forever,” Safechuck said. “It was an action to solidify our love. I was getting a little older and I was a little more insecure about my position, so it was sort of reminding me that we’ll always be together.”

“Even before that, I was all in,” Safechuck continues. “He also wedges a space between you and your parents, you and the rest of the world. He works very hard at that. So it’s you and him against the world. And that intense love combined with the world’s intense love for him is overwhelming.”

Michael Jackson and James Safechuck

Safechuck said that seeing Robson speak out about his experience with Jackson on the Today show in 2013 helped him realize there were others like him.

“You don’t think about there being others,” he said. “Your brain doesn’t go there. You’re just thinking about you and him. When Wade came out, I was triggered by it. It was an immediate sense of understanding.”

Even after seeing Robson speak out, Safechuck said that he still had the “panic of being caught” that he claims Jackson instilled in him when he was a kid.

“Michael had just drilled in you over and over since you were a kid, ‘If we’re caught, your life is over, my life is over,’” Safechuck said. “It’s repeated over and over and over again. That’s just drilled into your nervous system. So it’s panic of being caught. It takes a lot of work to sort through that.”

RELATED VIDEO: Michael Jackson’s Family Speaks Out Against Sexual Abuse Allegations in New Documentary

Robson said that Jackson told him a similar statement: “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, but also terrified for him,” Robson continued. “I loved him, and I wanted to protect him. In my mind, up until whatever it was, six years ago or so, I was going to take what truly happened to my grave. No question, that was the way it was.”

Robson said that if his son hadn’t been born, there’s a “really good chance” he would still “be living in silence.”

“I started seeing, in my head, myself in my son,” he said. “And that was the first moment that I ever, ever thought in my life maybe I need to tell someone about this.”

Robson said he had lied to his therapist in the past because he still wanted to protect his and Jackson’s story, that is, until he had “two nervous breakdowns.”

“The second of which led to me disclosing,” Robson explained. “So [after] the first nervous breakdown, I went to therapy [with] absolutely no intention of talking about what happened between Michael and I…I had no idea that what happened between Michael and I, the sexual stuff, had any negative effect whatsoever.”

Reed said “the most extraordinary thing” about talking to Robson was “the love that he felt for Jackson and the fact that he was in love with him.”

“I just found that sort of illuminating,” Reed said. “Everything just, sort of, fit into place. I knew this was something at the time I thought, uneducated as I was really about the nature of abuse, at the time that really rocked me and I found that astonishing, and it explains so many things.”

Winfrey detailed how it can be “so hard” for people who have not experienced this type of trauma to understand why the two accusers would have wanted to continue being around Jackson if he was abusing them. Herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Winfrey said she had her own “light-bulb moment” when she was 42 years old after speaking to a man on her show who molested children and described how he practiced grooming his 13-year-old daughter.

“[I] finally realized at 42 that it was not my fault,” she said. “So I think for a lot of people to see the grooming process and understand for yourself, ‘Oh, that’s what happened to me.’ That’s what I’m trying to get you all to see, that you don’t need to be a big iconic star, that this is happening in families with children everywhere.”

Robson said that Jackson’s “grooming” of him and Safechuck started before he ever even met them because of who he was.

“He was such a massive figure and represented himself as such an angel,” Robson said. “So long before ever meeting him the first time, so much had been set up already, that I was and I think my mother, my whole family was already surrendered before we’d met him.”

Michael Jackson and Wade Robson
HBO

Jackson’s estate issued a statement to PEOPLE in January ahead of the Sundance premiere and blasted the documentary as a “pathetic attempt” to make money off of the singer.

“This is yet another lurid production in an outrageous and pathetic attempt to exploit and cash in on Michael Jackson,” the statement read. “Wade Robson and James Safechuck have both testified under oath that Michael never did anything inappropriate toward them. Safechuck and Robson, the latter a self-proclaimed ‘master of deception’, filed lawsuits against Michael’s Estate, asking for millions of dollars. Both lawsuits were dismissed.”

During the interview with Winfrey, Reed rebuked this statement and said that Robson and Safechuck “have no financial interest” in coming forward.

“They make that clear straight away in my documentary,” Reed said. “They’re not being remunerated in any way and neither are their family. So this is a hypothetical financial interest.”

Robson previously sued Jackson’s estate in 2013, claiming that Jackson abused him for nearly a decade, but the suit was dismissed by a judge in 2017.

“I could have, I guess, just gone on some TV shows and [done] some interviews and more than likely it would have been sensationalized and over in a couple of weeks,” Robson explained about his decision to sue. “So for me, that’s where it began. That’s one of the platforms that we have, the legal system.”

Winfrey’s interview with Robson and Safechuck comes 26 years after she famously sat down with Jackson in February 1993 for a live interview that pulled in more than 90 million viewers, according to Oprah.com. Five months later, in August 1993, accusations that Jackson had molested then 13-year-old Jordan Chandler were made public.

The chat broached topics previously avoided by Jackson, including his difficulties in balancing a normal childhood with his skyrocketing career, as well as his troubled and allegedly abusive relationship with father Joe Jackson.

Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson

Ahead of the documentary airing Jackson’s brother Jackie, 67, told Gayle King, “I don’t care to see it. No, because I know my brother. I don’t have to see that documentary. I know Michael. I’m the oldest brother. I know my brother. I know what he stood for. What he was all about. Bringing the world together. Making kids happy. That’s the kind of person he was.”

Taj Jackson, 45, added that “It’s always been about money. I hate to say it. When it’s my uncle, it’s almost like they see a blank check.”

The King of Pop’s estate has filed a $100 million lawsuit against HBO over its planned broadcast of the documentary, alleging it violates a non-disparagement clause from a 1992 contract.

In a statement obtained by PEOPLE, HBO said, “Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged. HBO will move forward with the airing of Leaving Neverland, the two-part documentary, on March 3 and 4. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”

Jackson died in 2009 at age 50, leaving behind three children: Prince Michael, 22, Paris, 20, and “Blanket,” 17, who now goes by Bigi.

Oprah Winfrey Presents: After Neverland will debut simultaneously on HBO and OWN following the end of Leaving Neverland’s two-night HBO premiere on March 3 and 4.