Skip to main content

Former NHL hockey player Sheldon Kennedy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, before the Senate Children and Families subcommittee hearing on child abuse. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

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.

The former NHL player was the marquee witness at the crowded U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday, testifying under the glare of television cameras as a panel of powerful senators took in his remarks.

Pedophiles count on the fact that most people have trouble believing trusted adults in their fields — coaches, teachers, priests — would ever abuse children, Kennedy told the U.S. Senate subcommittee on children and families.

"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 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.

The chairwoman of the subcommittee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, told the 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 drew parallels to his own abuse at the hands of former junior hockey coach Graham James.

"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 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."

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

"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."

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, says 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.

James was convicted of some 350 sexual abuse charges and served 3 1/2 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.

In an interview with The Canadian Press on the eve of his testimony, Kennedy said he travelled to D.C. with Gilhooly top of mind. The one-time Winnipeg goalie had the publication ban on his name lifted last week so he could speak out about the abuse.

"That's where my thoughts are; Greg's done more behind the scenes than a lot of people have," he said.

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.