Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player, shared his story of abuse, how he overcame it and what society can do to help victims of abuse on Thursday at Penn State.
Kennedy was an NHL player for eight years, playing for the Detroit Red Wings, Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins before retiring from hockey in 1999. He was sexually abused by his youth hockey coach, Graham James, when he was between the ages of 14 and 19.
“After the first abuse, I knew I was different from everyone else in a way I couldn’t even describe,” Kennedy said. “I was too afraid and ashamed to say anything for a long time.”
Kennedy spoke up about his abuse for the first time in 1996, eight years after he was last abused by James, when he filed a complaint against James that led to his arrest.
James pleaded guilty to 350 counts of sexual abuse against Kennedy and an unnamed player in 1997. He was sentenced to three and a half years in jail.
“I finally said something because I saw Graham James with a youth team while I was playing for Calgary,” Kennedy said. “The thought of it happening again made me to speak out.”
After his hockey career, Kennedy became a spokesman for violence and child abuse prevention programs. In 1998, he used inline skates to cross Canada to increase awareness and raise funds for sexual abuse victims, raising more than $1 million for Canadian Red Cross abuse programs.
Kennedy wrote a book in 2006 titled “Why I Didn’t Say Anything: The Sheldon Kennedy Story.” The book discusses Kennedy’s abuse and the long-term effects it had on him, including drug and alcohol abuse.
“What was so difficult for me was getting away from being the victim and getting my life back,” Kennedy said. “Now it’s my goal to help other abuse victims get that.”
In 2004, Kennedy co-founded Respect Group, an advocacy organization whose vision is to eliminate abuse, bullying and harassment by inspiring a global culture of respect.
“My role is to keep the issue of child abuse in the forefront so change can happen,” he said. “I’m not a child abuse expert, so I try to paint the picture of the invisible trauma that is left after abuse.”
One of the changes made in Canada due to Kennedy’s advocacy was the requirement for all coaches in youth sports to take part in a training program that educates them on their legal and ethical obligations related to child bullying and abuse.
Kennedy said that what happened in response to his abuse could be similar to Penn State’s response to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.
“Penn State has an opportunity here to really make a difference and leave a legacy behind,” he said. “Canada had its own Penn State 15 years ago, and we were able to make some good come out of that situation.”
Jennie Noll, a member of the panel who spoke after Kennedy, agreed with him.
“As one of 12 new faculty members hired who are experts in child maltreatment, I can see the progress Penn State is making. The change is palpable.”
Kennedy said he believes there is a unique opportunity for sports to be involved in child abuse awareness.
“Sports have a critical role in the lives of children, so they have a critical role in the education of both children and adults on these issues,” he said. “Coaches especially have the chance to either shape a child’s life in the right way or to destroy it.”
Pam McCloskey, who works in Milesburg as a counselor for child abuse victims and was another member of the panel, talked about the importance of educating children on abuse.
“We are afraid to talk about sex with children, but we can’t be. Children need to feel comfortable to talk about what happened to them, like they won’t be blamed for what was done to them.”
Kennedy said that it is important not to be too wary in reaction to child abuse.
“Right after abuse is exposed, there tends to be a paranoia surrounding interaction with children,” he said. “Adults are afraid to even put an arm around a kid and ask them how their day is going, and that isn’t good.”
The proper way to deal with this is to reduce the fear that comes with child abuse, according to Kennedy.
“There needs to be acceptance that these things happen everywhere and affect everyone,” he said. “Once that’s accepted, we can have the social change where people feel comfortable talking about child abuse and harassment.”
McCloskey said she believes the most important lesson is for people to know when to speak out.
“People should always follow their gut instinct,” she said. “If you see something that seems wrong, say something. Even if it was nothing, you’re providing information to experts so an investigation can happen.”
John Soubik, a former child welfare investigator and another member of the panel, said he feels the same way.
“You should never be afraid to speak up if you see something that seems off,” he said. “How sad would it be if that situation really was abuse, and you could have stopped it?”
Jack Small is a Penn State journalism student.