Michael Jackson's former nanny defends him against new sex abuse allegations in HBO's 'Leaving Neverland'
In a rare public statement, Grace Rwaramba said she never witnessed sex abuse.
The simmering debate over last weekend's new HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland” could be heating up again.
One of Michael Jackson’s longest-serving employees has come forward to defend the late pop star, saying that in all the years she worked for Jackson she never witnessed, suspected or learned of any sexual abuse of children by the pop star.
In a lengthy statement released to ABC News, Grace Rwaramba – the former nanny to Jackson’s children, Prince Michael I, Paris and Prince Michael II (known as ‘Blanket’), who worked for Jackson for 17 years – described her former boss as hopelessly naïve to manipulation and incapable of hurting children.
“If Michael harmed Wade Robson and James Safechuck, they have my deepest sympathy and compassion,” Rwaramba said in the statement, referring to the two men featured in the documentary. “I don’t claim to know what happened between Michael and his accusers. I wasn’t there.”
“However, because Michael is no longer here to defend himself, and because I have a unique view of him and the life he lived, I feel compelled to speak out against what I firmly believe to be false claims. The person that Wade and James describe is not the person that I knew.”
“He was trusting to the point of extreme naivete; always assuming the best intentions in everyone,” Rwaramba said of Jackson in the statement. “While he was far from perfect, in my over twelve years of living with Michael, knowing him and his lifestyle intimately, I never saw or experienced anything that led me to suspect that he was capable of child sexual abuse.”
In the controversial film, the two men graphically detailed alleged child sexual abuse at the hands of Jackson, who died in 2009 at the age of 50. They claimed that Jackson introduced them, separately, to pornography and masturbation and digitally violated them on multiple occasions.
In one of the most talked-about scenes in the documentary, Safechuck pushes a child-sized, diamond-inlaid gold band on to the tip of his adult finger. He contends in the film that Jackson gave him the ring as part of a secret, mock wedding ceremony the two held when Jackson was 30 and Safechuck was 10.
"I was really into jewelry and he would reward me with jewelry for doing sexual acts for him," Safechuck said in the HBO film.
The documentary has sparked a re-examination of Jackson's legacy, more than a decade after the pop singer was acquitted of child sex abuse charges involving a 13-year-old in California -- home to his 'Neverland' ranch.
Since it aired earlier this month, several radio stations in Canada and New Zealand have reportedly stopped playing Jackson's music, and in Manchester, England, a statue of the singer has been removed from the National Football Museum, according to the BBC.
Jackson's estate has sued HBO for $100 million for allegedly breaching a previous, 1992 non-disparagement agreement as part of a contract to air Jackson's "Dangerous" tour. Jackson estate lawyers did not seek to prevent broadcast of the documentary, which aired this month on March 3 and 4, but rather claimed that the previous agreement was breached by airing the "Leaving Neverland" documentary.
“HBO breached its agreement not to disparage Michael Jackson by producing and selling to the public a one-sided marathon of unvetted propaganda ... [in] a film where they knew the two subjects had for many years testified under oath and told family, friends and law enforcement that Mr. Jackson did nothing inappropriate to either of them."
HBO network executives said in a statement issued earlier this week that the lawsuit was an effort to "undermine" the film.
“Despite the desperate lengths taken to undermine the film, our plans remain unchanged," the statement reads. "HBO will move forward with the airing of Leaving Neverland, the two-part documentary, on March 3rd and 4th. This will allow everyone the opportunity to assess the film and the claims in it for themselves.”
Attempts by ABC News to reach Robson and Safechuck for comment on Rwaramba's statements were unsuccessful. A spokesman for the film directed requests for comment to the two men's attorney. The attorney provided ABC News with a statement in response to Rwaramba's comments.
"Ms. Rwaramba admits in her statement that she does not know what happened between Michael and his accusers," attorney Vince Finaldi said in the written statement. "As a longtime employee of MJJ productions she has a vested interest in defending Jackson and his estate."
"It is sad that she had chosen to disparage a victim of child sexual assault and his family in order to do so," Finaldi continued in the statement. "This is a continuation of the campaign of false information, character assassination, victim blaming and shaming that the Jackson corporate lawyers heap on any child or adult who speaks the truth about Mr. Jackson’s sexual behavior with children. These attacks have kept many of Mr. Jackson’s victims silent. It will not stop Wade or James from speaking the truth.”
'60 to 100 employees'
Rwaramba played a pivotal role in Jackson's life for more than a decade before his death. She traveled with Jackson and the children to Bahrain and Ireland following Jackson's 2005 child molestation acquittal. In 2008 she testified in Jackson's defense during a breach-of-contract trial brought against the singer by a Bahranian sheik.
"Grace was like the mother, and Michael was the father," Jackson friend and filmmaker Bryan Michael Stoller told Time Magazine in 2009. "The only person I saw get close to the kids besides Michael was Grace."
The Robsons’ ambition and self-interest knew no bounds.
Rwaramba contended in her statement that there was an "army" of people working at Jackson’s California ranch whenever the iconic artist was there, and that it would have been extremely difficult for the star to molest visiting children.
“I was at Neverland when many of the family friends would come and go," Rwaramba said in the statement. "At any given time, anywhere between 60 to 100 employees worked in security, maintenance, housekeeping, grounds, the kitchen, and many other roles. Maintaining the ranch in such immaculate shape took an entire army of workers that were always around.”
Jackson was first accused of child abuse in 1993 by Jordan Chandler. That accusation led to an extensive law enforcement investigation but no indictment. Jackson reportedly settled a civil lawsuit in 1994 with an undisclosed payment to Chandler's family.
A decade later, Jackson was charged with seven counts of child sexual abuse and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent to commit felony child sex abuse against Gavin Arvizo. In June, 2005, Jackson was acquitted of all charges.
'Every night that I was with him, there was abuse'
In the documentary, the two men -- Robson, now 36, and Safechuck, now 41 – claimed they were each individually abused by the pop star, Robson beginning when he was 7-years-old and Safechuck beginning when he was 10.
"Once the abuse started within that first week, every night that I was with him, there was abuse. While my mother was you know, next door," Robson said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey titled "After Neverland," which directly followed the release of the documentary on HBO.
If Michael harmed Wade Robson and James Safechuck, they have my deepest sympathy and compassion. I don’t claim to know what happened between Michael and his accusers. I wasn’t there.
Safechuck said he first met the pop star while shooting a soda commercial at age 10. He claims that after developing a friendship with Jackson, he was also abused by the singer in secret hideaways throughout Neverland Ranch and in hotel rooms while on tour.
Safechuck also said Jackson would make him participate in "drills" where "he would pretend like somebody was coming in and you had to get dressed as fast as possible without making noise."
When sexual misconduct allegations against Jackson surfaced in 1993, both Robson and Safechuck testified on the singer's behalf, saying he never molested or touched them in appropriately. Robson did again in 2005, prior to Jackson's acquittal on child abuse charges.
But now the two men have come forward to claim that they were, in fact, sexually abused by the singer – and that it took becoming fathers themselves for them to recognize themselves as victims of childhood abuse by the singer.
Robson told Winfrey that when he testified he had “no understanding that what Michael did to me sexually was abuse. 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 it was love,” Robson said. “He told me that he loved me and God brought us together. … Anything Michael would say to me was gospel.”
'Ambition and self-interest'
Rwaramba, who acknowledges she doesn’t know whether or not Jackson molested the two men, described Robeson and his mother as determined to use Jackson’s fame and celebrity to make him a star.
“I know Wade Robson and his family well,” Rwaramba said in the statement. “I first met Joy Robson back in the early 90s, when I was at MJJ Productions. In late 1994, I attended the release party of Wade’s first album in California. I distinctly recall Joy running that event as though her life depended on it. After that release party, I didn’t see the Robsons again until early 1997, when Wade joined several other families at Neverland after Prince was born.”
“Over the years, I got to know the Robsons well as they visited the ranch on many different occasions,” Rwaramba continued in the statement. “Neverland was an enchanting place where the butlers, cooks, maids, zookeepers, gardeners and other staff made every guest feel like royalty, and everyone person who was fortunate to visit loved it!”
“The one thing that was consistent about the Robsons over the years was Joy's steely resolve to turn Wade into a star,” Rwaramba said in the statement. “When all the other kids, often including Michael, were off having water balloon fights or watching a movie in the theater, Joy would be drilling Wade on a dance move and every so often wave Michael over for some tips.”
“On one such occasion, Michael sat next to me as I was watching Prince and we watched Wade practice under Joy’s focused inspection. He said to me, “she reminds me of Joseph,” referring to his father’s obsession with perfection. Unbeknownst to Joy, that was her nickname. Michael had a nickname for everyone. This was the only time I ever heard him compare anyone to his father. Also, despite his complicated past with Joseph, he meant this observation as a compliment.”
Several years after his 2009 death, both men sued the Jackson estate civilly for child sexual abuse, but the lawsuits were dismissed due to statutes of limitations. Both men are appealing the separate decisions, according to the documentary.
In the interview with Winfrey, Robson said he was forced to lie on the witness stand at Jackson's 2005 trial and elsewhere, and that the lawsuit was an effort to do "something good with this bad."
“Michael trained me and forced me to tell the lie for so many years, and particularly on the stand,” he continued. “And those were really traumatizing experiences for me that had a huge impact on the rest of my life. So the feeling was, I want an opportunity to reprocess that experience. I want to get on the stand again, because now I’m able to tell the truth.”
'Neverland' wedding bid
Rwaramba also claimed that Robson sought permission to hold his wedding at Neverland -– in the middle of Jackson’s 2005 criminal trial, for which he was acquitted of all charges.
“The Robsons’ ambition and self-interest knew no bounds,” Rwaramba wrote in her statement. “Several months before Michael was acquitted on all charges on June 13, 2005, he came home from court and informed me that I should expect a call from Wade. When Wade called the ranch, security patched the call through to Paris’s room where Michael and I spent most of our time preparing for the next day.
"I put him on speaker phone," Rwaramaba continued. "He informed me that Michael had advised him to contact me about whether he and his finance, Amanda, could have their wedding at Neverland in the fall. I was utterly shocked by how insensitive the request was; Michael was sitting next to me.
"’You know Grace, Neverland is so special to my family and me,’ Wade continued,” according to Rwaramba’s statement. “’Michael has been like a father to me, and it would mean the world to us if Amanda and I could get married at Neverland.’ I told Wade, this is not a good time, reminding him that Michael was in the middle of the fight for his life.”
“A few days later, I was in Santa Barbara running errands when Joy called with the same request. I had previously helped Wade gain permission to film a music video at Neverland, which was a big favor considering the strict no cameras policy. I remember responding with a stern ‘do you seriously expect me to ask Michael, right now -- during the trial -- if you can use the ranch for Wade’s wedding?’
"After a moment of awkward tension, she conceded and dropped off the phone," Rwaramaba wrote in the statement. "Why would someone who alleges to have been assaulted for over seven years want to have one of the most sacred events in his life on the same property where the attacks allegedly took place?’”
A woman who answered the phone at the home of Lynnette Joy Robson declined comment, referring interview requests to a public relations spokesperson in New York, who referred ABC News to Finaldi, Robson and Safechuck's attorney.
“What I can't understand is why Wade would continue to voluntarily and consistently return, and bring friends and loved ones, to a place that is the site of the alleged attacks well into his adult life?” Rwaramba said in the statement.
Rwaramba, a Rwandan national, began working as a personnel director and assistant to Jackson in 1992, and became a nanny to his children beginning in 1997, when Jackson’s first child, Prince, was born.
“For twelve years, from 1997 to 2009, I was part of Michael’s family … I spent more time with Michael in the last twelve years of his life than anyone except his children.”