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What Leaving Neverland Reminds Us About the Statute of Limitations

Politics Features Michael Jackson
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There are countless ways that HBO’s recent documentary, Leaving Neverland, has forced us as a society to challenge our longstanding narratives. The scope of Michael Jackson’s star power has helped to cast a wide net in terms of who feels impacted by the documentary’s claims, and what we’re questioning—everything from the artistic merit of our childhood idol to the nefarious side of celebrity to the culpability of parents looking to create a better future for their kids. Amid all the hubbub and debate, however, there remains one overarching question that is quieter, subtler, but needs to be unpacked all the same: is our legal system obstructing the very justice it’s meant to serve?

In the documentary, two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, describe in graphic detail the ways in which Jackson allegedly manipulated and sexually abused them as children. Both recount spending nights alone with Jackson in his bed, and the many sexual acts that they were coerced into performing, out of what the singer deemed “love.” At one point, Robson recalls how Jackson once told him that “God brought us together,” a sentiment that clearly impacted the way that a young Robson understood what was happening between them. Safechuck told the story of how Jackson brought him to a jeweler when he was 10 so that they could buy rings for one another. They later had a “wedding ceremony” to consecrate their relationship.

Over the course of four hours, the men gaze distractedly off into the distance, swallow nervously, and, in the case of Safechuck, frequently end their sentences with an upward lilt, as though they themselves can’t really wrap their minds around the things they’re saying. It’s as uncomfortable to watch as it is compelling, due in no small part to the fact that these are two men who have testified in defense of Jackson in the past, adamantly denying that the singer had ever harmed them in any way. (The Jackson family and estate, for the record, point to this incongruency as proof that the men are lying and just trying to make money off their claims.)

It’s important to note that at the time that they were called to testify for Jackson the first time, in 1993, they were 11 and 15, respectively. According to Robson’s present allegations, that Jackson sexually abused him between the ages of 7 and 14, he would have still been being abused by the singer at the time of his testimony. Furthermore, by the time they were witnesses in a court of law, both boys had already been coached for years on how to hide their relationships and deny any sexual interactions with Jackson. The singer had, in Robson’s words, started drilling into him early on that “he and I would go to jail for the rest of our lives” if anyone ever found out what they were doing.

Following the harrowing two-part, four-hour documentary, Oprah Winfrey stepped into the fray with her own hour-long special, After Neverland, aimed at expanding the conversation beyond Jackson and his celebrity to the concept of childhood sexual abuse, a topic that she has broached many times over the years. With Robson, Safechuck, and director Dan Reed sitting on the stage beside her, and an audience full of childhood sexual abuse survivors before her, Winfrey laid bare the facts: regardless of what naysayers might say about the validity of their claims, both men exhibit plenty of the behaviors typical of someone who might be finally coming to terms with their trauma.

And in doing so, Winfrey opened up the conversation to consider a major hiccup in both Robson and Safechuck’s ability to seek retribution for Jackson’s alleged abuse: They didn’t realize they were abused until, in the eyes of the court, it was too late. When they came forward in 2013 to accuse the singer of years of sexual abuse, their cases were ultimately dismissed not because of a lack of credibility, but because their statute of limitations were up. They had both “waited” too long after the alleged abuse took place, though as Winfrey and experts have pointed out, there are a myriad reasons why victims are unable to come forward at all. And one of the major reasons is the abuser himself.

“Offenders make children like them,” Chris Newlin, the executive director of the National Child Advocacy Center, told the New York Times. “If I like you, you’re 98 percent good — it’s just that two percent of the time. This is why children have trouble disclosing when it’s a family member. Because they like them.” Jackson telling Robson that God had brought them together, or performing a wedding ceremony with Safechuck, fall easily into this category. The inherent trust that both men had in Jackson as children likely prevented them from viewing the sexual interactions as abuse, and even pushed them to wear the burden of the secret like a badge of honor; they had been chosen by Jackson.

Outside of the Jackson case, there have been countless other cases that point to these patterns of childhood sexual abuse victims taking years, if not decades, to process their trauma. Just last month, Roman Catholic bishops in New Jersey named nearly 200 priests who had sexually abused children. Many of those on the list are already dead, and the abuse they were accused of committing took place decades ago. Last August, members of the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania were accused of covering up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over the course of 70 years, with a believed 1,000 identifiable victims in all. Larry Nassar, the Olympic physician, was found to have abused 332 young women over the course of several decades. It took many of them years to process and then come forward with their stories.

Given all of this, it’s clear that the current statute of limitations in place in most states is harmfully outdated. The circumstances that surround childhood sexual abuse are such that victims are made to feel complicit, question the trustworthiness of those closest to them (so that they won’t immediately reveal the perpetrator’s abuse), and even regard the attention they’re receiving as somehow special, as Robson and Safechuck did. So as we continue to learn more about the psychology behind victims of childhood sexual abuse, it only makes sense that the court of law adapts to reflect that new knowledge, since the legal system’s role, in this case, is to serve justice. And presently, justice for something that happened decades ago is most often offered up in the form of monetary compensation.

On Wednesday, several states voted to extend the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. North Dakota senators voted to more than double the statute to 21 years (versus the present 10 years); survivors gave tearful testimony in Minnesota that same day in hopes of passing a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations altogether. And New Jersey lawmakers are scheduled to vote Thursday on new legislation that would offer survivors the opportunity to prosecute up until they turn 55 or within seven years of first realizing their abuse.

Other states, like Vermont, are already considering amending their statutes of limitations or doing away with it altogether in light of what we now understand about the delayed reverberations of childhood sexual assault. As Burlington lawyer Jerome O’Neill, who filed some four dozen priest misconduct claims against Vermont’s Catholic Church, put so succinctly, “The shame and the fear and the unwillingness to kind of delve into themselves and deal with it, is such that the average age that people are really ready and able to delve in and deal with it is in their 40s.” More states should be following suit.

One has to wonder, if Robson and Safechuck had been given the opportunity to testify back in 2013, how differently things might have played out. Their testimony in Leaving Neverland is riveting, but it isn’t being heard in a court of law, where its veracity could have been determined in a more consequential way, and where the Jackson estate would have also been given ample opportunity to rebut their claims. That the two men are telling their stories now, without the possibility of justice or retribution (if their claims were believed to be true in court), feels like a failure on the part of our legal system.

In the context of the #MeToo movement and the push to give victims of sexual abuse a voice, it feels only appropriate that one of the ways that we challenge our longstanding narratives is by reconsidering the systems that hold them in place. If we don’t question why they exist and how they might stifle the very progress we’re collectively working toward, then aren’t we setting ourselves up for a delusional Neverland from which we can never leave?

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