Sugar Ray Leonard proves himself a beacon of strength in the fight against child sex abuse

Only a few years before he won a gold medal and became a national hero at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Sugar Ray Leonard was sexually abused by an unnamed coach in a car in his hometown of Palmer Park, Md.

For more than 30 years, Leonard kept the secret to himself. He lived with the misery, the pain and the angst.

Even when he finally opted to reveal the secret in his wonderfully written 2011 autobiography, Leonard couldn't bring himself to tell writer Michael Arkush the entire story at first.

Few know as well as Leonard the long-term consequences of sexual abuse. He's now 56, a boxing Hall of Famer and celebrity icon who still carries the pain of crimes committed so long ago.

Leonard offered himself Monday as the "poster child" and encouraged those who have been abused to speak out and seek help while speaking at a conference on child sex abuse at Penn State in State College, Pa.

Leonard urged victims to report the crimes to the police in the very town where former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky caused so much damage by sexually abusing boys. Sandusky's stature in the community was so great that many of the victims were fearful of reporting the incidents.

Sandusky, 68, is now serving what is effectively a life sentence after being convicted in June on 45 counts of child molestation.

[Also: QB Matt McGloin helps PSU put football focus back on field]

Leonard's words at the conference Monday are significant because they come from a victim and are directed to other victims. No one can understand the fears, shame and doubts that abuse victims feel more deeply than someone who was abused in a similar fashion and struggled for decades with it.

Leonard is still working to come to grips with the trauma his abusers inflicted upon him, but he encouraged victims of similar crimes to report their abusers to the police as soon as possible in order to ease the pain.

"I'm going to be the poster child [for speaking out against child sexual abuse,]" Leonard said. "I don't care. I will be that leader. I will stand right there and say, ‘Yes, something must be done now. Not later. Now.' "

In his book, Leonard wrote that not long before the Olympics, a trusted coach brought him into a car and told him he had an excellent chance of winning a medal. That immediately had an impact upon him.

"To hear a major force in amateur boxing offer such high praise was a huge ego boost, which was maybe why it took me forever to see the real reason he had me in the car," Leonard wrote in his book, "The Big Fight: My Life in and out of the Ring."

"Before I knew it, he had unzipped my pants and put his hand, then mouth, on an area that has haunted me for life," Leonard wrote.

[Dan Wetzel: Penn State is bigger than just one bad guy]

He raced from the car and never said a word. He said even when he first told Arkush of the incident decades later in order to put it into the book, he didn't tell the full story.

"It was too painful," Leonard wrote. "Instead, I told a version in which the abuser stopped just as he reached my crotch. That was painful enough. But last year, after watching the actor Todd Bridges bare his soul on Oprah's show about how he was sexually abused as a kid, I realized I would never be free unless I revealed the whole truth, no matter how much it hurt."

Leonard said Monday that one of the most difficult things to accept about being sexually abused was that someone so trusted could do something so vile. It's particularly difficult, Leonard said, for a child to deal with.

"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," Leonard said. "They told me everything I wanted to hear, and more."

Leonard said he abused drugs and alcohol in an effort to "numb" what he perceived as the shame of being abused.

Sandusky, the one-time sports hero, abused that trust horribly. Leonard, a long-time hero, used his sad tale to make the point that child sex abuse victims should never blame themselves.

It happened to the great Sugar Ray Leonard. It could happen to anyone.

The best way to fight back is by speaking up.

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