Ex-boxer Sugar Ray Leonard talks about trauma of sexual abuse

Speaks at Penn State conference


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Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard says it was trust that made him susceptible to sexual abuse by men in his life, a trauma that he kept hidden for years.

Those separate assaults by a coach and by another man as he trained for the Olympics was something he didn't speak about for years, turning instead to alcohol use.

"There was no manual. There was no pamphlet," Mr. Leonard said as Penn State University's Child Sexual Abuse Conference began Monday. "I never heard anyone talk about this. So to me it only happened to me. I was the only one who was victimized by abuse, sexual child abuse."

He now has been sober for six years and wrote about what happened to him in an autobiography. But he said Monday that when accusers came out against Jerry Sandusky, he cried as he thought about what they endured.

His message to victims and those close to them is to maintain a support system that lets children know it's OK to talk to others about what happened to them.

"The killer is silence," he said. "When you're silent, that eats your insides, it tears at your heart. ... It's such a toxin, such a poison. It will never go away until you find it in your heart to speak up and speak out against it, or about it."

His story was among those shared as the two-day conference got under way in State College, where child-abuse experts and survivors offered their perspectives on how better to prevent abuse and help victims move forward.

The conference is part of the university's ongoing response to last year's criminal charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and two Penn State administrators.

Sandusky, 68, was convicted on 45 counts related to sexually abusing young boys he met through his nonprofit organization The Second Mile, a charity for at-risk youth. He was sentenced to at least 30 years in state prison. The two school administrators were charged with perjury and failing to report abuse and are scheduled to stand trial in January.

"Child abuse is a tragedy for children, for families and society," Penn State president Rodney Erickson told the more than 400 attendees. "And the time to step up the effort to stop it is now."

Much of Monday's session focused on the research that has been done on child sexual abuse and prevention strategies.

University of New Hampshire researcher David Finkelhor said efforts to boost public discussion of abuse have reached "a tremendous milestone," but said clear statistics on the issue are still lacking.

About 68,000 cases were substantiated by child protection agencies during 2010, he said, contrasting it with a federal study in 2006 projecting that 180,000 cases were reported to community professionals that year and another estimating that 1.6 million abuse incidents involving juveniles occurred last year.

"For the purposes of understanding and tracking, we really could do a whole lot better," Mr. Finkelhor said.

He also said communities like Penn State are not alone in dealing with incidents that can affect many more people than just victims and perpetrators.

"Sexual abuse does a lot of collateral damage that often goes unrecognized beyond the harm to the direct victims and their families," Mr. Finkelhor said. "I think it's not uncommon in the wake of sexual abuse for whole communities to lose their sense of trust and comfort and sense of ordinariness."

Looking forward, Keith Kaufman of Portland State University said prevention could be improved by finding creative ways to reach parents, encouraging school policies that foster positive relationships, and boosting research on both victimization and offender prevention.

While campus classes shut down early Monday as Hurricane Sandy barreled toward Pennsylvania, the conference is expected to continue today with some sessions being live-streamed at protectchildren.psu.edu.

Among the scheduled speakers is Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted as a child.

education - state - psusports - sportsother

Harrisburg bureau chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254. The Associated Press contributed.


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