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At Penn State, Sugar Ray Leonard recounts history of abuse

| Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, 10:06 p.m.
World title boxer Sugar Ray Leonard speaks to reporters after a speech regarding his personal experiences of abuse at the Child Sexual Abuse Conference in State College, Pa., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)
World title boxer Sugar Ray Leonard speaks to reporters after a speech regarding his personal experiences of abuse at the Child Sexual Abuse Conference in State College, Pa., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson)

STATE COLLEGE — 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.”

A judge this month sentenced Sandusky, 68, to at least 30 years in prison for dozens of criminal counts covering abuse allegations 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 registered to attend the conference. About 420 showed up as of Monday, despite gigantic storm Sandy.

The university said the conference will go on as scheduled, wrapping up Tuesday with a keynote address by former kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart.

University 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. 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.

“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.

Aside from the book, Leonard said he had spoken out before a large group on the topic just once before, for a television show. He had qualms about speaking at Penn State and sought beforehand to prepare his daughter, Camille, 15, 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.”

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