WASHINGTON – A former NHL player who was sexually abused by a junior coach in Canada told Congress Tuesday that the key to preventing abuse is training adults who oversee youth sports.
"Punishing the bad guys makes us feel good, but it does not fully solve the problem," Sheldon Kennedy said at a Senate hearing.
Kennedy was testifying on the same day that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was scheduled to face his accusers at a preliminary hearing in Pennsylvania, but Sandusky waived that hearing. Sandusky, who faces more than 50 counts related to the sexual abuse of 10 boys over a 12-year period, has acknowledged horsing around and showering with boys, but has denied sexually abusing them.
Last week, Kennedy's former coach, Graham James, pleaded guilty in Canada to sexual assaults involving two former players, including NHL star Theoren Fleury. The coach had already served 3 ½ years in prison for abusing other players, including Kennedy. James was quietly pardoned for his crimes in 2007, leading to public outcry.
Tuesday's hearing by a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee is the first one Congress has held in the wake of the Penn State scandal.
Kennedy and Fleury have both become outspoken advocates for abuse victims. Kennedy is the co-founder of an organization called Respect Group, which has launched an online training program to educate adult youth leaders on abuse, bullying and harassment prevention. He said that his experience with the group has taught him that "educating the good people — the 99% of our population — is our best defense to prevent abuse," and that training must be mandatory.
Without mentioning the Penn State scandal by name, he offered similarities between the two situations.
"In my case, my abuser was International Hockey Man of the Year!" he said. "In Canada, that gave him almost God-like status. Sound familiar? The man who preyed on me took advantage of his position as a coach to look for children who were especially vulnerable — single-parent households, families with drinking problems, boys who needed a father figure, etc. These kids — and often their parents too — looked up to him as a hero. This was someone who could make their dreams come true and he used that trust to hurt them."
At Penn State, officials say the allegations were not immediately brought to the attention of authorities even though high-level people at the university apparently knew about them. The scandal led to the ouster of Hall of Fame football coach Joe Paterno and longtime college president Graham Spanier. Two other Penn State officials who are charged with perjury and failing to report the assaults maintain they are innocent.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who chaired the hearing, said that everyone has a responsibility to report abuse.
"I believe regardless of who you are, if you see something, if you know something, then report," she said. "If you see something, do something."
Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who requested the hearing, has introduced legislation that would strengthen child-abuse reporting requirements. Casey said that beyond that bill, "we need to take a broader look at federal legislation on this issue to ensure that we are doing everything possible to protect children."
Kennedy said that in every child abuse case, including his own, there are people who have a "gut feeling" that something is wrong but don't do anything about it.
"Their attitude was 'I don't want to get involved,' 'it's not my problem,' 'he couldn't possibly be doing that' or 'the authorities will take care of it,'" he said, adding that pedophiles and predators count on that ignorance or indifference.
Frank P. Cervone, executive director, of the Philadelphia-based Support Center for Child Advocates, said that sometimes people think they'll make things worse for the child by intervening.
"To which I say: how can it get worse? We fool ourselves if we think that stopping a crime is not the best solution," he said.
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