Sugar Ray Leonard comes forward as abuse victim

Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard speaks with reporters after his speech on being an adolescent victim of sexual abuse at a conference at Pennsylvania State University. Experts say such testimony, especially from men, helps other victims.
Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard speaks with reporters after his speech on being an adolescent victim of sexual abuse at a conference at Pennsylvania State University. Experts say such testimony, especially from men, helps other victims. (RALPH WILSON / Associated Press)
Posted: October 31, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Sugar Ray Leonard still hasn't told his parents or his 11-year-old son, and Monday was just the second time that he spoke publicly about being sexually abused as an adolescent. He had not written a speech, and he momentarily grasped for words.

During a 30-minute talk before a room full of experts and advocates, however, the boxing legend moved quickly from uncertainty to clarity - "I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse" - and then a declaration that surprised even organizers of the Pennsylvania State University conference.

"I'm going to be the poster child. I'm going to speak up. And speak out," he said.

Leonard, 56, was just the second speaker at the two-day gathering, yet a key theme - speaking out, both to heal and to get others to speak out - was already apparent.

"I think that really is the way to end abuse," Kate Staley, a Penn State child psychologist and conference organizer, said in an interview.

Jerry Sandusky, who this month was sentenced to prison for assaulting 10 young boys, may well be the poster child for perpetrators of youth sexual abuse. So it may be fitting that Penn State, the university where he coached, should be the site for a poster child for victims to come forward.

Elizabeth Smart, the teenager from Utah who was abducted, raped, and held for months, has also become a poster child of sorts, and she was scheduled to address the conference Tuesday. But experts say that male role models are particularly important, and in short supply.

Staley said the conference was part of Penn State's effort to turn its own tragedy and upheaval into national leadership on an issue that remains largely unrecognized despite major cultural changes over a generation.

The passion and commitment of those in attendance was apparent: Fewer than 15 percent of attendees canceled despite the storm bearing down on this college town far from urban transportation centers.

There was a lot to learn.

No single authority collects comprehensive data on child sexual abuse, so even oft-cited statistics - that one in six boys and one in four girls will be molested by age 18 - are to some extent guesswork, said David Finkelhor, a University of New Hampshire professor and director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

Misconceptions abound. One is that childhood sexual abuse is increasing. Although statistics vary widely, all show a substantial decrease over the last 10 or 20 years, Finkelhor told the gathering.

Most offenders are not pedophiles, and many are not even what might considered predatory, as in "circling birds of prey" that have abuse as a goal, he said.

Adults often start out with "perfectly benign reasons" for getting close, he said, like teaching or hanging out with nieces and nephews. And then, the adults may feel some sexual urge.

Children also may not find contact unpleasant, he said, and so instructing them about how to respond if they "feel yucky" is not enough.

Even the advantages of talking about the abuse with someone are unclear, Finkelhor said, with studies finding no difference in the eventual impact between those who disclosed what happened and those who did not.

For Leonard, though, "feeling yucky" would be an understatement.

The 1976 Olympic gold medalist briefly described the two incidents in his autobiography, The Big Fight: My Life in and Out of the Ring, which came out last year, as the Sandusky case was unfolding. "I cried for those victims," he said Monday.

He gave few other details. He was around 13 or 14 years old. Both cases involved men - one was an Olympic coach - whom he trusted and believed were his keys to a successful boxing career. Contact in both cases was brief - a hand in his pants - and ended when he ran out.

"I was crying, crying so hard it hurts," said Leonard. "I told no one. There was no book. There was no manual. To me, I was the only one."

In the ring, his mind was clear. "When I was by myself, I was dying inside," he said.

When he tentatively opened up to his first wife, she was silent, he reported. Same for his second. Leonard turned to drink before going sober six years ago.

It was a show with Oprah Winfrey that persuaded him to talk.

"When you are silent, it eats at your insides," he said. "My life has changed so much by speaking out."

He said he had no idea what his role would be in raising awareness of childhood sexual abuse - "I am coming out of the cave," he said at a news conference after his speech - just that he had to play one.

"I'm a world championship boxer, yeah. I was on Dancing With the Stars," he said near the end of his address, but "to be known as one of the people who led the way to eradicate child sexual abuse, that would be the greatest accomplishment of my life. . . ."

"I will be that leader. I will stand right there and say, 'Yes, something must be done now. Not later, now.' "

Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or

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