STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard recounted his own sexual abuse by coaches he trusted, telling a Penn State audience on Monday he hoped to encourage other victims to report abuse to police.
Leonard spoke at a sold-out conference on child sex abuse hosted by Penn State weeks after former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, 68, was sentenced to prison for 30 to 60 years for sexually assaulting 10 boys he befriended through his charity for at-risk youth.
Leonard, 56, who retired after winning world boxing titles in five different weight classes, said as a youth he was sexually assaulted by men he trusted as his boxing coaches.
“Trust is a very sacred thing, especially for young people, kids, or a young boxer, so I trusted these people, these individuals who impacted my life,” said Leonard said. “They told me everything I wanted to hear, and more.”
The former champion said he used drugs and alcohol to “numb” his shame of being a victim of child sexual abuse.
“I beat myself up for years,” said Leonard as the two-day conference got underway with Hurricane Sandy quickly approaching Pennsylvania.
Now Leonard said he wants to step into the spotlight as a leader in the fight against child sex abuse in the hopes it will help other victims find the courage to report crimes to police.
“I‘m going to be the poster child. I don’t care,” Leonard said to applause.
“I will be that leader. I will stand right there and say, ‘Yes, something must be done now. Not later, now,'” Leonard said.
Without mentioning Sandusky by name, Penn State President Rodney Erickson told the audience in opening remarks that he hoped the silver lining of the abuse scandal is that more victims will come forward rather than keep the secret to themselves.
“I hope that even more survivors will take their first steps towards recovery with the confidence that their family, friends and community will believe and support them,” Erickson said.
Erickson took office after Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, and legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who has since died, were fired in the wake of Sandusky’s arrest last November. An independent report by former FBI chief Louis Freeh concluded that four former university officials - Spanier, Paterno, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley - were alerted to Sandusky’s abuse but did nothing to stop it or report it to authorities.
Since Sandusky’s sentencing, The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, says the volume of calls to its sexual assault hotline has increased 47 percent.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Sandra Maler