Revealing that you have been sexually abused doesn’t come easily at any age. Child victims often fear for their lives. Years later, they fear the reaction of others to such a shocking admission.
But unless victims come forward, nothing changes. Just look at the Jerry Sandusky case, which has led to sweeping reforms at Pennsylvania State University to protect children and make sure sexual attacks are reported.
The importance of coming forward was reiterated this week by boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, who spoke candidly at a Penn State conference on child sex abuse about a secret he had kept hidden for years.
Leonard, 56, said he was sexually assaulted as a youth by men he trusted as boxing coaches. The former middleweight and welterweight champion first revealed the sexual assaults in a book published last year. He has not identified the two men, now dead, whom he said abused him in separate instances.
Known for his bravery in the ring, Leonard had to muster up more courage to admit he wasn’t always able to defend himself. He promised to stay in the spotlight if it will help bring more attention to a national problem. “I’m going to be the poster child. I’m going to speak up. And speak out,” he said.
Leonard’s appearance at Penn State came only weeks after Sandusky, a former Nittany Lions assistant football coach, was sentenced to up to 60 years in prison for sexually assaulting 10 boys he befriended through a charity he had created for at-risk youth.
The two-day conference represents part of the efforts being made at Penn State to change a culture that failed to root out a sexual predator. Sandusky often brought his victims on campus.
An investigation conducted for Penn State by former FBI Director Louis Freeh blasted legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the university’s top officials for not acting earlier to protect vulnerable young victims.
But while Penn State has become the epicenter in the fight against child sexual abuse, the job must go far beyond that community. In Pennsylvania and other states, for example, lawmakers should open legal windows that go beyond current statutes of limitations so that victims abused years ago may file lawsuits that would give them a day in court.
Experts estimate that one in six boys and one in four girls will be sexually molested by age 18. Because there is no central reporting system, the actual numbers could be much higher.
The problem often remains hidden because victims, like Leonard, are reluctant to report what happened. More advocacy centers would offer a safe place where victims can be counseled and interviewed by authorities.
There also must be stricter reporting requirements in Pennsylvania and elsewhere that would encourage child sexual-abuse victims to come forward and alert authorities sooner about the predators in their lives.
As Leonard noted, “Yes, something must be done now. Not later, now.”