'He was a master manipulator’: Abducted in Plain Sight and the truth about abuse

From Jimmy Savile to Larry Nassar, time and again parents have missed the signs that their child is being sexually assaulted. But a new Netflix documentary shows that grooming often starts closer to home

‘I tell you, I don’t know how we could have been so gullible when there were so many red flags. But I didn’t see the red flags,” says Robert Broberg in the jaw-dropping new Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight. But, in truth, there weren’t red flags: there was one giant red blanket entirely enveloping the whole story, from beginning to end.

The tale of the Broberg family, and how they were duped by their close family friend, Bob Berchtold, who molested their young daughter Jan for years, starting in her family home, is so incredible that the documentary has already been dubbed by DigitalSpy “the maddest, darkest true-crime show yet”. I watched it last weekend and, while I think of myself as something of a wizened old hack when it comes to true-crime documentaries, when it finished I immediately tweeted my shock and was inundated with replies, all in the same “WTF?” vein.

The incredulity has not been focused on Berchtold, a paedophile described by his own brother as “always a pervert”, and one so prolific that at least six other women have since approached Jan Broberg to say he abused them as children, too. Instead, it has been directed at her parents. How could they have let him hang around their children when his obsessive interest in Jan was so obvious that even her two younger sisters could see it? How could they have allowed him to sleep with Jan in her bed for six months? And how could they have stayed close to him after the first time she went missing with him?

Larry Nassar
Former US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar enters the courtroom for sentencing in 2018. Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty

Clearly, in cases of child molestation and abduction, the condemnation should be focused on the perpetrator, not the family, and in the specific case of the Brobergs, they were victims, too. (I am treading extra carefully here so as not to give away any spoilers.) But what makes Abducted in Plain Sight so fascinating is that it exemplifies, at times to a gothic extent, a question that comes up again and again in stories about child abuse: how could people have missed what was happening right in front of them?

A 2011 study found that the most common perpetrator of sexual violence against children is a man or teenage boy known to the family, and the most common location where abuse happens is in the child’s home. “There is a culture of disbelief around abuse, and a still lingering idea that it’s only strange men in dirty macs who do it,” says Professor Lorraine Radford of the University of Central Lancashire, who co-authored the study. “But what we found is the person is often known to the parents, and he groomed them to believe he’s the fun, lovely, family friend or relative.”

The Larry Nassar scandal exemplified this on a horrifyingly large scale. Nassar, the widely revered doctor for the USA gymnastics team, was found guilty last year of being one of the most prolific sexual abusers in sporting history. For decades, he had molested girls and young women during medical appointments, sometimes with their parents in the room; he would just put a blanket over the girl’s legs and chat to the mother while he molested the daughter. The mother of one victim, Chloe Myers, later recalled wondering why Nassar needed to wash his hands afterwards if he had just been feeling Chloe’s leg, and why he hadn’t worn gloves if he had done an internal exam. But, she told herself, “this was Larry. So it was no surprise that he was trying some kind of alternative treatment”. Kyle Stephens, who Nassar began molesting when she was six, said at his trial that her father refused to believe her when she told him what was happening. When Nassar’s abuse was finally confirmed, her father killed himself.

“If you look at abuse in sport, the likelihood is the abuser has convinced the family and the child that they’re privileged to be seeing that coach, and they’re getting special treatment,” says Professor Daniel Wilcox, a forensic clinical psychologist. “I’ve seen abusers operate in plain sight, such as the head of gymnastics at one place who would have the girls bend over and he would ‘straighten their costumes’, right in front of the parents.”

High-profile abuse cases – such as the Jerry Sandusky scandal in the US in which a college football coach was convicted in 2012 of multiple counts of child abuse, and the sex abuse in UK football clubs exposed by the Guardian – prove time and again that families are not the only ones who are blinkered to blatant sex abuse. As one former gymnast told me when I wrote about the Nassar case: “[Gymnastics] didn’t want to risk the piles of Olympic medals.” So they turned a blind eye.

When the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal finally broke open in 2012, the general feeling was that something like this would, and could, never happen again. Savile had been notoriously blatant about his predilections: “Nobody knows whether I am or not [a paedophile],” he said in Louis Theroux’s 2000 profile of him. And yet no one did anything. (Theroux later made another Savile documentary, after he died, about how he, too, had missed the obvious.) When it was finally confirmed after Savile’s death that he had been a prolific sex abuser, the public reaction generally ran along the line of “no surprise there”. But why didn’t any of us speak up when he was alive? It was a different time; never again will people be able to ignore the signs that something is wrong.

And yet we do. Michael Jackson’s shady relationships with children were hardly a secret: in 1994 he had paid the Chandler family $23m after the father accused him of abusing his 13-year-old son, Jordy, and multiple allegations from other families soon followed. Jackson was found not guilty in a 2005 criminal trial. His reputation was tarnished, yet he was still hailed as one of the icons of the 20th century when he died. Sure, we knew he was a bit dodgy, but a lot of us still wanted to dance to Wanna Be Startin’ Something. And hey, nothing was ever confirmed, right? (People who knew Berchtold entertained a similar kind of queasy dual mentality: an FBI agent who investigated the original case talks in the documentary about how Berchtold was seen locally as “a pillar of the community” but was also known “to have an infatuation with young girls”.) So, at Sundance last month, when the documentary Leaving Neverland premiered, with its details of how Wade Robson and James Safechuck were abused by Jackson for years, there was a genuine feeling of global shame. Jackson was a child abuser? Many had suspected this for years – yet, somehow, we had also put it to one side. Numerous cases, which have also blown up in the wake of #MeToo, have provoked similar reckonings.

Abducted In Plain Sight
Jan Broberg today, in a still from Abducted in Plain Sight. Photograph: Top Knot Films

Abusers groom their victims and those around them. The truly remarkable thing about Jackson is he managed to groom the whole world by convincing everyone he was merely an innocent weirdo. Sure, this adult man might have young boys sleeping in his bed, but he wasn’t an abuser – good heavens, no! He was simply a real-life Peter Pan, a Willy Wonka, a Pied Piper. And, amazingly, the public bought that, even as Jackson, looking increasingly creepy, was photographed with an ever-rotating parade of little boys by his side. Starstruck parents were too dazzled by his celebrity to think twice about packing their sons off for sleepovers, and those around him decided he was too lucrative to be stopped. Often powerful alleged sexual predators are only finally exposed when their stars start to wane, or they are dead, and they are no longer worth protecting.

Celebrity cases are really just macro versions of more common micro stories such as Jan Broberg’s. While Berchtold was not a celebrity, he was, as one of Jan’s sisters puts it, “the fun dad”, someone their parents liked, and so the kids wanted to please him. Abducted in Plain Sight may be the first Netflix documentary that is not long enough. Instead of being five to 10 hours, as now seems standard on the streaming platform, it comes in at a nippy 90 minutes, and not enough time is spent on the Brobergs’ Mormonism. Robert Broberg recalls at one point: “We weren’t sure even then what a child molester was.”

But it is not only Mormon parents who are deceived in this way, and sometimes it is easier for a parent to think that their child is simply confused rather than acknowledge that they placed them in danger’s way. As one of Jan’s sisters says: “I don’t think my parents wanted [to think about Jan being raped] and this is why they didn’t probe more when they knew something had happened. It’s too painful for them to realise that they allowed this to happen.”

“Often children won’t speak up because their abuser has turned their thinking into believing they’re complicit, or something terrible will happen if they speak, which is another complication for families,” says Wilcox. Berchtold certainly did that with Jan. When she – after years and years of abuse – finally tells her parents the story Berchtold told her to ensure her silence, her mother marvels: “Does she really believe this?” Yet her mother had believed a story at least as fantastical as the one Berchtold told her daughter, insistently overlooking behaviour that was clearly not normal.

“He was just a master manipulator,” Jan concludes about her abuser. But he was and he wasn’t. It is true that Berchtold convinced the Brobergs to not trust their instinct. But he – like so many abusers – didn’t have to do anything to hide his crimes. He committed them in plain sight.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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