Sheldon Kennedy is a former professional ice hockey player and founder of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre. He is a guest columnist for the Calgary Herald Christmas Fund 2015. Handout photo Calgary Herald
Former Calgary Flames player Sheldon Kennedy is an advocate for victims of sexual abuse.
Sheldon Kennedy says being sexually abused for years by his junior hockey coach Graham James turned him from a “goofy, slightly mixed-up kid” who dreamed of the future into little more than “a zombie.”
The former NHL player turned advocate for sexual abuse victims still seems ill at ease when talking about his own experiences, even though he was the first victim to come forward 20 years ago.
His coming forward was an unbelievably courageous act, especially at the time. Another Calgary Flame, Theo Fleury was the second to come out as being abused by James. Theo had a long and very successful career in the NHL, but suffered with addiction problems as Kennedy did.
But talk about them he does. On Monday, he was before an international audience of front-line agencies, policy-makers and researchers from 42 countries sharing ideas on how to protect children from abuse and neglect.
Pacing back and forth on stage at a conference of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, an emotional Kennedy recounted the circumstances that began when he was playing for the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos.
“It wasn’t, for me, a one-time thing with Graham James. It was every time I was with him,” he recalled.
“And it wasn’t just about the physical piece of it. It was about the mental manipulation and the confusion and the isolation that comes with their obsession over you.”
James would go to prison for sexually abusing Kennedy and is still serving time for preying on a number of other players. He is currently full parole.
Kennedy’s career in the National Hockey League spanned less than 10 years. He developed alcohol and drug problems as he struggled to come to terms with what had happened.
In 2013, he helped facilitate the opening of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary. It brings together under one roof the services of police, social workers, medical staff, psychologists and prosecutors to try to avoid young victims constantly having to retell and relive their abuse.
Kennedy urged his audience to consider the same kind of co-ordinated approach to reduce the trauma child sexual abuse victims suffer around the world.
“We don’t treat a broken leg differently in Calgary than we do in Toronto, so why do we approach this stuff different around the world? The basics are the same,” he said.
“We talk about mental health, and then we talk about child abuse, and then we talk about addiction. For some reason, child abuse and child health treatment is a social services issue and a justice issue.
“This is a health issue.”
Kenney said almost 70 per cent of the children brought to the centre are between four and 12 years old and have experienced some sort of sexual abuse.
Alberta’s human services minister told delegates they must find better ways to end “needless tragedies.”
“The pervasiveness of these issues that we are discussing is not from a lack of commitment, concern or co-operation from all of those of you who deal with them every day,” said Irfan Sabir.
“It’s saddening to note that 39 years after (the international group) was founded we must still meet to discuss crimes that should have no place in our society.”
It is even more saddening to note that the problem just keeps getting worse and most governments in the world refuse to deal with it. That is probably because most people in the world are still, to a large degree, in the dark on the subject and often choose to remain that way.
Please pray about all these things. Pray for the advocacy centre model to be adopted all over the world. Pray for governments who have no interest in opening that can of worms to wake up and develop a heart. Children suffer brutally everyday because governments do nothing to address the worst atrocity the world has ever seen.