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Lay the blame, shift the shame to pedophiles

Over my years covering crime and the courts, I've seen more than a few good men whose lives were bent by pedophiles - among them, Martin Kruze, who was abused by the Maple Leaf Gardens' pedophile Gordon Stuckless and who ended up jumping off a bridge; the parade of brave young men who came forward as adults to point the finger at their former teacher at Upper Canada College, Douglas Brown; the array of victims of the late John Paul Roby, another of the Gardens' predators.

I believe these good men represent just a fraction of those boys who are preyed upon, too.

Some children are more resilient than others, or have stronger families, and reach earlier - in time - the understanding that it wasn't their fault and that they are not worthless, and so never complain. Some suffer in silence, forever. Some never find the wherewithal to face the ordeal that accompanies the laying of a criminal complaint. And some of course die - slow suicides via the booze and drugs they so often use in trying to forget, or quick ones - before they can find the courage or the stomach.

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I was reminded of these men this week when former National Hockey League star Theo Fleury went public, both in his new book, Playing with Fire, and in the press, with allegations that he was abused by his former junior coach, Graham James.

I say "allegations" because, at the moment, there is no criminal complaint against Mr. James in relation to Mr. Fleury.

But Mr. James is a convicted pedophile.

In 1997, the former coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos pleaded guilty to two of an estimated 350 counts of sexual abuse involving another former NHLer, Sheldon Kennedy, and an unnamed Swift Current player (a civil lawsuit filed by this player and his parents was later settled out of court), for which Mr. James received a whopping 42 months in jail. He was also banned for life from coaching in Canada.

At the time, though it was widely believed that Mr. Fleury was the other NHL victim who had been mentioned but not identified by Mr. Kennedy, he was still in the throes of his various escapes (booze, drugs, gambling, promiscuity), had yet to hit bottom, and didn't come forward.

In fact, shortly before Mr. Kennedy went to police in 1996 and became the latest public face of sexual abuse in the national game, Mr. Fleury was part of a group of investors who brought the Hitmen club to Calgary for the 1995-96 season with Mr. James as the coach.

Mr. Fleury says now that for years he was bewildered by his participation in that hiring, but it's a familiar old story for sex-abuse victims to maintain connections to their abusers.

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I remember Martin Kruze telling me once that long after Mr. Stuckless had stopped using him for sex, he stayed friendly with him, even would meet him for dinner now and then. This was perhaps the single most torturous aspect of the whole awful business for Mr. Kruze, the hardest to get his head around, the source of his greatest shame, and yet I understood why right away: So filled with self-loathing was he by that point in his life, such a freak in the world did he feel, that at some level, he must have believed he deserved no better than the company of his abuser.

Mr. Fleury's story is not only about hockey's failure to deal with what appear to have been long-held suspicions and rumours about Mr. James, though it's partly about that.

The truth is, none of the spheres where pedophiles regularly move - arena and sports field, church and pew, school and summer camp - has been particularly adept or brave at weeding out from their midst men who want to have sex with boys. To be fair to these organizations, it's a difficult exercise, distinguishing between those who love boys for the wrong reasons and those who love them for the right ones - and there are many more of the latter than the former.

Most adult men who are kind to vulnerable boys are merely being kind, but predators can practically smell out those kids - the lonely boy, the fatherless one, the fat one, the shunned one. Mr. Fleury would have been ripe for the picking - his dad was an alcoholic, his mom flattened out by prescription sedatives. They were unalert parents who thought Graham James was the best thing to happen to their boy.

Now 41, Mr. Fleury has been clean and sober for four years. He made an honourable if unsuccessful comeback effort earlier this year with the Flames, thus righting his previous messy exit from the game he played with such marvellous ferocity for 16 years. His book is apparently flying off the shelves. He has said in recent interviews that though he isn't sure how to lay a complaint against Mr. James, he may be willing to do it.

I hope he does. Telling all, going public, is an important step for him, but one I suspect will prove fundamentally unsatisfying, especially in a culture where spilling one's guts is the norm, and where the appetite is vast and undiscerning and always in search of the new.

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If Mr. James did what Theo Fleury says he did, appalling conduct Mr. James has already admitted to with Sheldon Kennedy and the unidentified other victim, he didn't break only young hearts (if not, it turns out, gritty spirits), he also broke the law. Of all the times I've seen men face their abusers in court, under oath, with all the solemnity and dignity inherent in that process, I can hardly remember one who was not in some way relieved to have done so.

For people who have had their trust so egregiously betrayed, their youth so exploited, there is no single answer. But shifting the shame to the right shoulders, the blame to where it belongs, usually lightens the burden.

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