Sheldon Kennedy testifies to Congress

Updated: December 13, 2011, 1:49 PM ET
Associated Press

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 in prepared remarks at a Senate hearing.

Kennedy was testifying on the same day that former Penn State defensive coordinator 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 Theo Fleury. The coach already had served 3½ 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 the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee 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 percent 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 cases.

"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 allegedly 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.

"In every case of child abuse -- certainly in my own -- there are people who had a 'gut feeling' that something was wrong but didn't do anything about it," Kennedy said. "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 that pedophiles and predators count on that ignorance or indifference.

Kennedy said that like most boys growing up in Canada, he dreamed of playing in the NHL.

"But it's not my dream that I'm best known for -- it's my nightmare," he said.

The junior hockey system Kennedy played in is a prime steppingstone to the NHL. Many players between the ages 16 of 20 live far away from home with local host families, known as billets. Junior coaches hold strong sway over the players' lives and futures in the sport.

Kennedy said that he didn't tell anyone of the abuse he didn't believe anyone would believe him.


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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