STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Retired boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard said Monday he cried for Jerry Sandusky’s accusers after hearing of the former Penn State assistant football coach’s arrest on child sex abuse charges nearly a year ago.
An abuse survivor himself, Leonard said he hopes the accusers can draw from his own story and willingness to speak out about a problem that garnered national attention following the Sandusky scandal.
“What I had heard about Penn State — I cried for those victims,” Leonard told reporters after speaking at Penn State’s inaugural Child Sexual Abuse Conference. “Because I knew what they’d dealt with, what they lived with … It’s such an awful thing that eats away at you, that makes you feel that you’re to blame.”
Sandusky, 68, was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison earlier this month after being convicted on dozens of criminal counts covering abuse allegations both on and off campus. Eight accusers testified at the June trial.
Leonard said he didn’t plan to reach out to the accusers. But asked what advice he would pass on, Leonard said it would be to “surrender. And surrender means, ‘Yes it did happen,’ but now deal with it. Speak up, speak out.
“Because if it happened to you, you can prevent it from happening to somebody else,” he said. “It’s being of service.”
Penn State said 500 people had registered to attend the conference. About 420 showed up as of Monday, with Hurricane Sandy disrupting travel plans across the eastern United States.
After morning classes were held as scheduled, the main University Park campus shut down by about 1 p.m. But the university said the conference would go on as scheduled, wrapping up Tuesday with a keynote address by former kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart.
The university hopes to become a leader in the research, treatment and prevention of child sex abuse. President Rodney Erickson said the origins of the conference go back a year, after Sandusky’s Nov. 5 arrest.
The arrest plunged the school into scandal and led to the ouster of the late Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno.
At the first full day of the conference, Erickson outlined ways the school is reaching out to help victims of abuse.
“Child abuse is a tragedy for children, for families and for society, and the time to step up the effort to stop it is now,” Erickson told attendees.
Experts contend cases of abuse are underreported.
About 68,000 cases of abuse were reported to protection services in 2010, according to data cited by University of New Hampshire researcher David Finkelhor. A 2006 study estimated there are 180,000 cases known to professionals.
But Finkelhor cited an academic study that estimated there may have been 1.6 million “contact sexual offenses” of juveniles in 2011.
“Sexual abuse does a lot of collateral damage … It’s not uncommon in the wake of sexual abuse for whole communities to lose their sense of trust,” he said.
Leonard revealed last year in a book that he was sexually abused by a coach while in the amateurs, something that haunted him throughout his life and led him to turn to alcohol and drugs.
The issue is still difficult for Leonard, who said he has been sober for six years. He choked up at times during his speech in a conference center ballroom.
Beside the book, Leonard said he had spoken out before a large group on the topic just once before, for a TV show. He had qualms about speaking at Penn State and sought beforehand to prepare his 15-year-old daughter, Camille, who accompanied him to State College, about what he would talk about since he thought she did not know.
It turns out, she did.
“She looked at me, and said, ‘Pop, I know,'” Leonard said. “And that’s a good thing because our kids need to know more. They need to be protected more.”
Leonard said Monday he was abused in separate instances by two men, both of whom are now dead. He did not identify them.
“People need to hear more of this. You know what, use me, I will be that leader,” Leonard said. “I will stand right there and say, ‘Yes, something must be done now.’ Not later, now.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.