Former NHLer Kennedy tells U.S. to speak up against child sex abuse

Sheldon Kennedy has urged American lawmakers to "empower" anyone who suspects children are being sexually abused, making a powerful plea as a one-time victim of a sexual predator in the wake of the Penn State college football scandal.

Ex-NHLer in Washington

11 years ago
Duration 3:02
CBC's Paul Hunter reports on former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy's testimony before a U.S. senate subcommittee urging lawmakers to do more to combat sex abuse

Canada's Sheldon Kennedy stepped into the American spotlight on Tuesday, the victim of a sexual predator making a Capitol Hill appearance to urge U.S. lawmakers to "empower" anyone who suspects children are being sexually abused.

Under the glare of television cameras and the din of snapping shutters, the former NHL player matter-of-factly told of the ordeal he suffered at the hands of a once-trusted hockey coach. His testimony came as America grapples with the Penn State college football scandal.

"In my case, my abuser was International Hockey Man of the Year," Kennedy told the U.S. Senate subcommittee on children and families, whose members include Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota.

"In Canada, that gave him almost God-like status. Sound familiar? The 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."

Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday before a Senate Children and Families subcommittee hearing on child abuse. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Pedophiles count on the fact that most people have trouble believing trusted adults in their fields -- coaches, teachers, priests — would ever abuse children, Kennedy said.

"Senators, you need to give all adults working with youth and all parents the tools to recognize and respond to abuse when it first arises," said Kennedy, who stunned Canada in 1997 when he stepped forward to accuse Graham James, his former junior hockey coach, of sexually abusing him for years.

"Empower the bystanders and you'll be taking an important first step in breaking the silence on child abuse."

Authorities in Pennsylvania, indeed, have accused several high-ranking officials at Penn State of knowing young boys were being abused by Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach on the college's celebrated football team, yet failed to notify the authorities.

Tuesday's hearing was held the same day that Sandusky appeared in a Pennsylvania courtroom and waived a preliminary hearing. He's facing 52 charges involving the sexual abuse of 10 boys between 1994 and 2009.

Cover ups

The chairwoman of the subcommittee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, told the Senate hearing about so-called double victims. Those children first suffered the abuse, then that abuse was overlooked, ignored or covered up, said Mikulski, once a social worker in Baltimore.

The Maryland Democrat said such coverups were a particular problem with institutions that were deemed beyond reproach or "too big to fail."

"We want to break that code of silence," she said. "No institution should ever be too big to report, or too famous to report. And no adult should ever feel they are protected because of the brand they represent."

Kennedy said those close to abuse situations often have an inkling — or in the case of Penn State, an outright awareness, according to authorities — that something untoward is going on.

"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," he 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.' And that's what pedophiles and predators are counting on. They are counting on the public's ignorance or — worse yet — their indifference."

Penn State scandal

The Penn State scandal ultimately resulted in the firing of Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno. Penn State president Graham Spanier also lost his job, and two other college officials have been charged with perjury and failing to report the assaults, some of which took place on campus.

For Canadians — and Kennedy in particular — the scandal is sickly familiar.

Kennedy, 42, has said he didn't tell his teammates about the abuse for fear they'd believe he was gay. He didn't tell his mother because he was afraid she'd pull him from Canada's revered junior team.

It's not just victims who are afraid to come forward, he added. It can also be adults close to the situation who suspect something isn't right.

"These issues carry fear," he told the hearing.

"So if we can eliminate that fear and give people confidence to act on their gut feelings, you're going to get a lot more of these parents and these coaches and these leaders and these teachers reporting and listening to our kids."

James was convicted of some 350 sexual abuse charges and served 3 ½ years in prison. He was quietly pardoned in 2007 — something that touched off a national firestorm when it was revealed to The Canadian Press by Greg Gilhooly, another alleged James victim.

Last week, James pleaded guilty to fresh allegations of sexual assault from two more of his former players, one of whom was NHL star Theo Fleury. Charges related to Gilhooly's allegations were stayed.

The political and legislative fallout of the James pardon continues to this day, resulting in much closer scrutiny of all applicants and stringent new rules that prohibit record suspensions for certain types of convicts, including sex offences against minors.

Tuesday's hearing was aimed at examining America's child abuse laws.

In particular, the subcommittee says it wants to review the adequacy of current federal and state reporting requirements, in addition to proposals aimed at both preventing abuse and intervening when abuse is suspected.