On the 10th anniversary of the death of performer Michael Jackson, some longtime fans wrestled with how to remember the “King of Pop” figure, whose music and stage presence they loved but whose image has been tarnished by allegations of child sexual abuse.
This is exactly the challenge many in our region face as they attempt to justify in their hearts and minds how an admired and respected individual – a priest or bishop, a doctor, a coach or athletic trainer – could in truth be a violator of children, or someone who shields abusers from facing justice.
The recent HBO movie “Leaving Neverland” paints Jackson as a child predator who lured little boys into close proximity, both physically and emotionally, before engaging them in inappropriate behaviors.
Jackson was sued for child sexual abuse in 1993, but not charged criminally, and the lawsuit was settled out of court.
He died June 25, 2009, of a drug overdose.
On Thursday, a story in USA Today raised the question of how difficult it could be for someone whose life was impacted by an artist’s creations to then come to grips with darker revelations about that individual.
“It’s the challenge of holding two opposing ideas in your head at the same time,” Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland journalism professor who teaches about the Jackson case in his popular “Scandals” class, told USA Today’s Maria Puente.
Jackson remains a popular figure, especially across social media. USA Today reported that his Facebook page has more than 72 million followers and his Instagram account reaches more than 3.2 million people – both groups growing steadily.
The newspaper interviewed music writer and culture critic Gregory Tate, who noted that songs such as “Billie Jean” and “Thriller” have not gone silent on the airwaves.
“It’s being proven every day that his music legacy will survive,” Tate said in Puente’s report. “The public has already made its stand because (the music) comes on in all kinds of public places and no one is saying turn that off.”
Margo Jefferson wrote the book “On Michael Jackson” – which has been called both a biography and a “cultural study” – but said she is developing a new introduction in the wake of the allegations in “Leaving Neverland.”
In a 2018 interview cited by USA Today, Jefferson said people should acknowledge Jackson for “the greatness of his art,” even as they recognize that he was “a damaged, harmed and harming person.”
Jerry Sandusky’s “greatness” – including building the “Linebacker U” reputation at Penn State – has been locked away with him in the state prison system following his 2012 conviction on child sexual abuse charges and several failed attempts at a new trial.
Joe Paterno’s image was tarnished by his association with Sandusky for four decades in the Penn State football program. A debate lingers over Paterno’s culpability, and how he should be remembered – even with NCAA sanctions lifted and the university’s program returning to national prominence.
USA Today called New York public-relations professional Allan Mayer a “journalist turned crisis management expert” who once worked with one of Jackson’s accusers.
Mayer discussed the challenges people face with reconciling the two sides of a larger-than-life individual, noting that “fans” are more likely to disbelieve allegations or maintain their support for that person despite a proliferation of reports concerning troubling behavior.
“They tend to hit us emotionally when we’re still forming personalities, so they take outsized space in our psyches,” Mayer said. “If we’ve put a lot of psychological or emotional investment in someone and then we find out years later he’s not who we thought, it’s asking a lot of someone to reject that investment.”
And what of those instances when the damage hits close to home – your priest or your local pediatrician touching your child, betraying your trust and your family’s faith in that person built up over many years?
In the days after allegations broke against Johnstown pediatrician Johnny “Jack” Barto, a Facebook page rose up to defend his character and place in the community, just as happened when he was accused two decades earlier.
Those voices of support withered as the charges piled up, and Barto pleaded guilty or no-contest to a litany of vile charges last December.
Some 50 clergy members were accused of abuse and two former bishops were named in an alleged cover-up in the 2016 grand jury report in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, sparked by allegations that Brother Stephen Baker engaged in inappropriate behavior with students at Bishop McCort for a decade.
Then 300 more priests were accused in a 2018 report covering six more dioceses.
Baker, a former athletic trainer, took his own life in 2013 and never faced justice.
Just a few days ago, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown placed Donald W. Dusza, a priest in the Northern Cambria Prince of Peace Parish, on leave because of “an accusation of sexual misconduct involving a young person,” the diocese said.
When will we be able to justify our understanding of these accused priests and bishops – see these religious figures as they really are: perhaps once inspiring and seemingly compassionate, but then flawed and ultimately dangerous?
I invite your thoughts on this topic.