Abuse of vulnerable by the powerful–it is very difficult to discern the truth in these matters, but it is very important to find the truth.


I have been  told not to make long posts. No one will read them they is said. This might be true. However, I feel this topic is so important I had to do it. Sorry about that. To those who can’t give the time I understand.

In the last few years, there has been an epidemic of sexual assault and abuse cases, particularly against celebrities or people in power. Why is that?

At the outset I must remind that Michael Jackson was charged with various offenses, went to trial prosecuted by an experienced and respected prosecutor and after a lengthy trial was ultimately found not guilty. That process and the outcome must be respected, unless we have very good reasons not to, such as evidence that the justice system was itself abused.

This issue in Jackson’s case has arisen again because of a recent documentary that was shown on American television and which at this time I have not watched. I want to see it. I did watch a television shown about the documentary in which 2 men alleged that Jackson sexually abused them when they were young. They were not the men whose charges led to the trial. Yet as a result of this new film documentary, many people say they have stopped listening to Jackson’s music and his reputation is being shredded.

It is also significant that Jackson is no longer around to defend himself and he always denied any such charges. His family has stepped in on his behalf to deny the charges, but of course, they are benefiting substantially, I presume from his ongoing legacy as a star. What do we make of it?

People v. Jackson (full title: 1133603: The People of the State of California v. Michael Joe Jackson) was a 2004–2005 criminal trial held in Santa Barbara California as a result of charges made by Gavin Arvizo who was a the time a 13-year old boy.  As a result Jackson was indicted for 4 counts of attempted child molestation against a minor, one count of conspiring to hold the boy and his family captive, and conspiring to commit extortion and one count of conspiring to commit extortion and child molestation. He pleaded not guilty on all counts and was found not guilty of all counts by the jury.

Jackson had been accused once before in 1993 of similar offences  so the newer charges did not come as a big surprise. Like the previous charges Jackson was accused of abusing Arvizo in his famous home Neverland which seemed to have been designed for an “adult kid.” In 1993 Jackson had been accused by another 13-year old boy Jordan Chandler and his father Evan Chandler for alleged abuse of the boy at his Neverland Ranch. There was an extensive investigation but it was inconclusive and no charges were laid.

In January 1994 Jackson settled out of court with the Chandlers for $22 million dollars. In a statement at the time, Jackson claimed that he had settled out of court even though he was innocent in order to avoid a media circus involving people who were seeking money from him. He earned some sympathy with these claims, but others were suspicious that a rich celebrity had bought himself out of trouble by silencing his accusers.

Jackson’s appearance (always an unreliable indicator) and some public comments he made led many around the world to doubt his innocence. A film Documentary made in 2003 showed Jackson holding hands with Arvizo and him discussing sharing a bed with children and this led to a new investigation, which in turn resulted in the charges against Jackson that triggered a trial which garnered international attention. In fact it  created exactly a media circus with Jackson in the center ring. The Guardian newspaper reported how there was “row upon row of TV cameras camped outside [the courthouse] like an occupying army.”

There was no physical evidence of abuse so the prosecutors had to rely on testimonies from witnesses including the Arvizo family and even Neverland employees. These people painted a lurid picture of Jackson as a sexual predator with a history of child sexual abuse. Wade Robson, at the time a young boy, also testified at that trial that Jackson had not molested him. Robson told a different story in the more recent documentary.

Jackson’s legal defense team argued that the witnesses were unreliable and had a history of perjury and fraud. Macaulay Culkin a former child film star testified in Jackson’s defense. He said he had shared a bed with Jackson when he was young, but Jackson had never molested him.

Jackson always said he never molested children; he said he worshipped them and would never harm them. In August 2000, Gavin Arvizo, a young boy suffering from cancer, visited Jackson at Neverland. Jackson where Jackson invited sick children from time to time because he felt sorry for them.

After charges were laid, a video showed Jackson being led out of his home in handcuffs. This created an international sensation when it was released. Jackson once again asserted his innocence saying the claims were “predicated on a big lie.” Jackson said this time he would not settle out of court as he had done in 1993. Legions of fans around the world gathered to show their support for Michael Jackson.

At the trial Martin Bahir who had produced the inflammatory documentary film testified for the prosecution but was shredded by the defense attorney in cross examination. According to the Guardian he was “left a trembling wreck.”

Another  young boy  testified at the trial that when he was young Jackson had molested him while tickling him and that Jackson paid him money so that he would not tell his mother. Two Neverland Staff testified that they had seen Jackson molesting children including Chandler and Macaulay Culkin. Although both staff had horrific stories to tell, both sold their story to a supermarket tabloid. The employees had sued Jackson after he dismissed them and their suits were thrown out as fraudulent and malicious. They were not the best witnesses for the prosecution. A cook testified that he had seen Jackson with his hands in Culkin’s underpants. Culkin denied this. A former house manager said he often saw Jackson drunk at his home and sometimes saw children emerging drunk from the wine cellar with Jackson.

The complainant Gavin Arvizo testified that Jackson had molested him, but also admitted that he told his school administrator this was not true. Gavin’s younger brother Star testified that Jackson had touched him sexually, but the Guardian described his testimony as a hapless witness for the prosecution who forgot crucial details that he had revealed to the grand jury but could no longer remember even when the prosecutors prompted him.

Janet Arvizo was a spectacular witness. She was the mother of Gavin and Star, but she was the type of witness lawyers hate. She was uncontrollable and a disaster for the prosecution. The BBC described her as a woman who was “combative and rambling,” who made erratic outbursts and rarely gave straight answers. She had the international spotlight and was determined to use it. Again she was not a witness likely to attract the sympathy of the jury. She admitted that she had lied under oath in an earlier trial. The defense lawyers portrayed her as a welfare fraud and she was in fact later convicted for that. The Prosecutor’s witnesses were not entirely stellar.

Culkin testified that he was shocked by the false claims that Jackson had molested him. He called those charges “absolutely ridiculous.”

Wade Robson is an important part of this case. Robson was 5 when he met Jackson. At the trial he testified that Jackson never molested him, contrary to testimony from others who claimed to have seen him molested.Many years later he recanted and said Jackson had in fact abused him and that he had not told the truth at the trial.He was interviewed in the recent documentary I saw and was an effective and convincing witness, but he was not subject to cross-examination by Jackson’s lawyers. This is very important. Statements made outside a court of law are not as reliable as those made inside the courthouse because of the availability of cross-examination, which tends to keep speakers honest. Remember too that my comments are based on second hand summaries of witnesses to the testimony. Again, this is not as reliable as direct evidence. The jury on the other hand heard only direct evidence about facts and all of that testimony as subject to cross-examination. That jury after hearing all the evidence, cross- examination, arguments and instructions from the judge reached the conclusion that Jackson was not guilty.

There were more witnesses as well, but I have to quit somewhere. It is clear that the evidence was far from clear, certain, and uncontradicted. Frankly it was troubling. It is understandable that the jury had a hard time convicting Jackson on the basis of the evidence delivered. That does not mean Jackson was innocent. It does mean that a not guilty verdict was understandable.

Remember too that juries must decide on the basis of proof, not on the basis of what is probably the case. They can only convict if the evidence is beyond reasonable doubt. If there was any reasonable doubt they were required to acquit Michael Jackson. The jury deliberated for 32 hours over 7 days. One juror later said that he had a “gut feeling” that Jackson was guilty of molestation but could not convict on that basis. He said the prosecution failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. In such circumstances the juror must acquit.

After a fair trial in which Jackson was acquitted of all charges, the issue of Jackson’s guilt or innocence has arisen again, as a result of the recent shocking documentary on HBO that featured 2 young boys who alleged that they were subject to sexual abused by Jackson. One of them, Wade Robson, had even earlier testified at Jackson’s trial that he was not a victim of sexual abuse, but years later said he had not told the truth at Jackson’s trial. Now he claimed instead that he had been sexually abused by Jackson.

Robson claimed now that he had been groomed for abuse by Jackson. Abusers do that.  He claimed that Jackson had “brain-washed him.” It is commonplace that victims of abuse often believe that they won’t be believed. This is not an unreasonable belief. Our judicial system has a black history of not believing victims, but believing perpetrators instead. As a result we can’t hold it against alleged victims that they failed to testify. Are those who did testify, but testified falsely as very young boys that they were not victims in a different position?

We must also remember and recognize that America, not unlike Canada, is a country that worships celebrity and wealth. Jackson had both in abundance. The parents of the victims were also not immune to this disease. This may explain why parents would allow children to “sleep over” at the home of a celebrity super star.

Michael Jackson was an American singer, songwriter, entertainer and dancer who was referred to as the “King of Pop.” He was not a garden-variety star; he was a genuine superstar He was considered one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20thcentury. He was also well-known for his philanthropy, charitable fund raising, lifestyle, and his famous Neverland Ranch. He had been a star for  decades. It is hardly surprising that in a culture where celebrity is worshipped, that the parents of the children gave in to the blandishments from Jackson. We should withhold blaming the parents unless we have all the evidence.

We have to remember as well that this was a situation of a giant celebrity and young vulnerable children, badly protected by their parents. It was a situation in which conditions were ripe for a predator to take advantage. That does not mean this happened; it does mean conditions were ideal for this to happen. Did it?

Unfortunately Jackson is no longer around to give his response to recent events. The strong suspicion that Jackson bought off his past accusers makes it even more difficult to be objective. We must also remember to ignore images we have inevitably had of Jackson’s weird appearance. That is not relevant. Perhaps Jackson  was innocent and did try vainly to avoid exactly what later happened–a media circus. Of course it was a circus to which he contributed. He agreed to be interviewed on CBS television prior to the sensational trial. Trying to sift out the truth in these circumstances is now very difficult. But let’s try.

Wade Robson was overwhelmed when he was young and heard that such an international superstar as Michael Jackson was enamoured of him. He said he fell head-over-heels in love with Jackson. His parents too were enthralled by the attention of such a star. But we must remember Robson  was only 7-years old at the time. Robson could not consent to the attraction. He was subject to it. His parents as well were so overcome with Jackson’s celebrity, wealth, and fame that they failed to protect their young son. They allowed their 7-year old son to sleep with the star in his bedroom, as shocking as that might seem to us, safely away from such celebrity power.

Michael Jackson presented themselves to Robson’s parents as a wonderful person who loved children. They did not see more to it than that. Perhaps they were blinded by his wealth and fame. How could they not do what Jackson wanted? How could they resist? How could they complain?

Frankly this is not unlike the situation of young nuns in the control of predatory priests. The priests are not famous, but they are believed by the nuns to be gatekeepers to heaven who can do no wrong by definition. How can they resist unhealthy attention from such priests? How can they complain? How can they not do what the priest wants them to do?

This is the black mark of abuse: a vulnerable victim in the grip of a ruthless perpetrator. This is the inevitable condition of abuse. All of us–but particularly those in charge of vulnerable people–must in such situations be on guard against abuse. And this is, just as inevitably difficult–very difficult. But it is all the more important for that.

What does a victim, especially a young victim, do in such a situation? It is not unusual, but it is common, for the victim to believe that he or she will not be believed. The powerful perpetrator will be believed instead. This has happened over and over again. The helpless victim also frequently believes that the perpetrator must be right. After all, the perpetrator is a priest, or a superstar, or a commanding officer, or a teacher, or a parent. This would be a good time to shudder. The perpetrator is asking for something so it must be right.

This is exactly why it is abuse. The powerful perpetrator takes advantage of his (or less often her,) position of power to rob the victim of consent. Any apparent consent is not real. It is abuse that brings about false consent. It is a consent that is manufactured. That is why such victims cannot consent to the abuse. Any consent is an illusion. A vulnerable victim cannot consent to sex with a powerful man. The faux consent is meaningless.

According to Robson, Michael Jackson told him  that if other people found out about what they did together in the bedroom, even though they loved each other, they would be pulled apart and both of them would suffer, so for that reason Robson must keep quiet. If he did not keep quiet, Robson believed, they would never see each other again, even though they loved each other and both would go to jail. These, of course, are powerful reasons for a young child to keep quiet, and even to deny the abuse. Such arguments might have persuaded Wade Robson just as they might have persuaded a young Macaulay Culkin. All too often abusers are able to persuade young victims that they should keep quiet.

James Safechuck was also interviewed on the recent documentary film. He met Michael Jackson when he was 10 years old when he was making a commercial with Jackson. He claimed that Jackson abused him sexually over and over again.  According to Safechuck, Jackson lured him away from his parents. He said that he idolized Jackson. In my view that is precisely the problem. Making idols of others never ends well. When it is done at a young age it can be harmless, but it is extremely dangerous to be placed in a position of vulnerability to the idol. Protectors of the vulnerable must be constantly and relentlessly on the alert against abuse of their charges in such situations.

In the Safechuck case, Jackson befriended the family and lavished attention on them. Again, in a society enthralled by celebrity and wealth, this is a difficult position to be in. James Safechuck’s mother said, “It was all so overwhelming, like a fairy tale, and I got lost in it.” That is what guardians must never allow to happen. They have to keep their head up.

According to James Safechuck, Jackson rewarded him with jewellery for sexual acts. Jackson gave him a mock “wedding ceremony.” Jackson warned Safechuck that if their secret marriage came out, both of their lives would be over. At age 10, it is easy to see how this might be believed.

In 1993 when the Arvizo boy came forward with allegations of abuse against Jackson, both Robson and Safechuck vigorously denied to the police that such abuse happened to them. Robson even testified to this effect in court.  Safechuck said this, he said, because he was afraid of being caught.

Robbi Ludwig, a psychotherapist said, “adult victims of sexual child abuse may lie to protect the person they love and that is not uncommon.” We must not blame the victims for that. We must never forget that the victims are in the power of the powerful abuser. We must also remember that the boys were too young to give genuine consent.

Years later both boys decided to recant and tell the truth. This can happen. Victims can be released from the grip of the perpetrator and this might happen years later. We should not be surprised when this happens.

Robbi Ludwig put it this way, “very often these children don’t call it abuse because they feel that they wanted it. They went along with it and they loved that the powerful person was giving them attention and they want to protect them, so it is very psychologically confusing which is why it takes many of the victims of abuse so long to come out.”

We have to remember that just because this can happen, does not mean it did happen. We have to remember that Ludwig’s conclusions about the Jackson case were also not subject to cross-examination by an effective lawyer such as Jackson hired. That makes it difficult for us now to discern the truth. So we must be on guard against leaping to unjustified conclusions. If we want to find the truth we must act like an ideal observer who listens with sympathy but always remains free from bias, looks for the best available evidence, listens patiently and carefully to arguments, and uses critical reasoning and not “instincts” or “gut feelings to reach a conclusion. If we are not willing to make this effort we should remain quiet.

Yet I note that a lot of these cases of abuse, such as Bill Cosby and now, allegedly, R. Kelly, and many others, involve a celebrity. I believe that the reason is that these people are uniquely powerful and attractive in American and Canadian society, where celebrity and wealth are literally worshipped. A number of them, like the R. Kelly case and Michael Jackson case involve enabling parents who are blinded by the fame and fortune of the perpetrators. As a direct consequence the victims, or alleged victims, are dangerously subject to the power of the perpetrator, or alleged perpetrator.

A lot of recent cases do not involve celebrities so much as religiously powerful people. I will call the powerful in these circumstances priests (though every denomination has them not just Catholics. The priests are uniquely powerful by virtue of their position. They are seen as gatekeeper of eternal life. They hold the keys to something the victim holds in great value. Who would not value eternal life? What they want, by definition is right and good. Who can complain?

Other recent situations of abuse have involved sports gods. For example, to young people, their sports coaches are also gatekeepers to the holy land of sports fame and fortune. Whatever they say must be right.  No one can resist. Again their parents must be careful.

There is one important lesson here. Power often, though not always, leads to abuse by the powerful over the powerless, and everyone must be relentless and eternally vigilant against the abuse of that power by the powerful, no matter what their sectarian position. And those who want to know the truth must to their best to become ideal observers of the road to truth and cannot take short cuts, though sometimes they of necessity can meandertowards the truth.

Was Michael Jackson guilty? The truth is murky. You decide. I can’t. Not yet. Be careful out there.

8 thoughts on “Abuse of vulnerable by the powerful–it is very difficult to discern the truth in these matters, but it is very important to find the truth.

  1. I have not followed this MJ story. (I already follow too many disturbing news items.) Your article resurrected an old meme of mine–that we worship too freely.

    We worship so many things! Brands, institutions, figureheads, symbols, exemplars, underdogs, politicians, athletes, artists, musicians, movements and their pious, ring-kissing attendents… the list is endless and dips not infrequently into the ludicrous and the quotidian. (“Give me Jamie Oliver frying pans or give me Death!”)

    Our days are spent leaping to our feet in standing ovations, praising the mighty in loud Tim Horton voices, getting into Coke vs Pepsi vs Star Wars vs Star Trek fistfights, and binge-tweeting proclamations of our never-ending love or hate of this or that. And dit. And dot.

    Maybe if we were stingier with our unbounded adulation we wouldn’t allow the alphas of our attention so much leverage over us?

    I think religion, more than any other manipulative tom-fuckery, teaches us how to abuse worship.

    But that’s a whole ‘nuther bastion to storm and I have an Antiguan short story yet to spin. The story, if I can get it right, will address some the few things worthy of praise and worship: nature and empathy.

    Cheers to you and your Tar Heels. (An allowable object of worship–the way you do it, anyway.) -mjt

    1. Or like Buffalo Springfield said: “holding signs that mainly say hoorah for our side.” Of course I forget the exact words even though thanks to Bob Frey I listened to that great song yesterday. The Tar Heels of course are an exception.

  2. i ask you, how many normal older men sleep with very young boys on a regular basis?
    and when will the species come to terms with the fact that adults have abused and continue to abuse children physically, psychologically, and sexually on a mass basis with impunity – celebrities, teachers, priests, coaches, physicians, etc. aside.
    i spent almost a decade in the bowels of a children protection agency. believe me it is not pretty.

    1. You may not be on facebook but I comments have generated some discussion there about whether his actions negate in any way his art. What are your views?

      1. correcto. i am off that part of the grid.

        diee yung es daoot.
        therefore, i see no reason why his art should be negated. there are massive numbers of artists long dead who engaged in all manner of skullduggery; yet we still admire their art.
        if he was alive, like r. kelly, it could be a discussion.

        you definitely need to watch the documentary though.
        in addition, check out the essay by wesley morris in the nytimes on the subject. he is an african-american cultural critic who writes for the times, and has considerable credibility.
        african-americans are highly skeptical about attacks on african-american men, given the history of lynchings, mass incarceration, police brutality, the practice of stop and frisk, etc. because of that when individuals like oprah and morris suggest that they find the allegations credible the community listens more carefully to those statements.

  3. I was not really trying to get people to reject MJ’s art. That was not really my purpose in writing about him. If people want to listen to his music that does not really bother me. I have never been a big fan of his music. I was interested in exploring the idea that he had been found not guilty but there seems to be a lot of evidence that he was guilty. What do we do now? He seems despicable. Preying on young boys or girls seems to me to be about as low as anyone can go. If people can look past that and appreciate his art who am I to say they should not? I find your point about African American men being highly sceptical about attacks on them an interesting one. Just like OJ. There was a lot of evidence that suggested guilt in his case as well. I will have to ponder that. I will try to read Morris. Thanks for the tip.

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