Remember the children

(ESPN) This is not about Joe Paterno.

If these boys really were molested, groped and raped by a middle-aged ex-Penn State football coach, then whatever misjudgment Paterno made will be a single lit match compared to the bonfire these boys will walk in for years to come.

Many of them won’t be able to trust. Won’t be able to love. Won’t be able to feel — nor trust or love themselves.

Don’t feel sorry for Paterno. He’s had his life. Feel sorry for these boys, because they may never get one.

Ask former NHL All-Star Theo Fleury, who has reached out on Twitter and radio to the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky. Fleury was sexually molested once or twice a week for two years by his youth hockey coach, Graham James. It twisted Fleury so inside-out that he numbed himself for years with booze, cocaine and strippers. He blew much of the $50 million he made in the NHL trying to forget. The coach he’d entrusted his hockey dreams to flayed open his soul for his own sexual perversions and left Fleury hollow.
“I no longer had faith in myself or my own judgment,” Fleury, 43, wrote in his book “Playing with Fire.” “Once it’s gone, how do you get it back? … I became a f—ing raging, alcoholic lunatic.”

Ask former Red Wing, Flame and Bruin Sheldon Kennedy. He was sexually molested by James every Tuesday and Thursday night at parent-approved sleepovers at James’ house from age 14 to 19. This snake even took Fleury and Kennedy to Disneyland, where he groped them, by turn, in a motel room. It left Kennedy so shamed and confused that suicide looked better to him than living with the guilt of it another day.

“You can’t trust anybody afterwards,” Kennedy said yesterday from Toronto, where he runs, an organization that teaches adults how to recognize abuse. “So you tend to live a very lonely life. You mask the horrible way you’re feeling with sex and gambling and drugs. You put all these walls up. You keep saying, ‘Why didn’t I say anything? I must’ve done something wrong. I lethim do it to me.'”

Imagine: One reported victim in the Penn State case, now 24, has been living with that kind of hole growing inside him since he made allegations against Sandusky in 1998 — 13 years ago. Those allegations never led to charges. That’s 13 years of not being believed, of knowing his alleged perpetrator was out there, volunteering at high schools and running his grisly camp “tours” of the shower room.

The horror of it makes you want to punch somebody. If Kennedy could talk to boys Sandusky might have abused who haven’t come forward yet?

“Tell someone,” says Kennedy, now 42. “Because people are going to believe you. People know it’s not your fault.”

No, this isn’t about 84-year-old Joe Paterno not taking more steps that might have stopped it. It’s about everybody not taking more steps that might have stopped it. Not parents, not teachers, not uncles, not friends, not counselors.

Imagine: Victim One, according to the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News, was often taken out of class by Sandusky to be further molested. Just taken out of school by somebody who wasn’t his parent, with no questions asked until his mother finally called the principal and asked her to check into it. Later that day, the principal called back in tears. “You need to come down here right now.”

According to a 1998 study on child sexual abuse by Boston University Medical School, one in six boys in America will be abused by age 16. For girls, it’s one in four by the age of 14. Those “If you see something, say something” billboards shouldn’t just be about terrorism. They may apply to sex abuse, too. Doesn’t matter if it’s your uncle, your longtime assistant coach or your buddy. You HAVE to say something. And yet, precious few people have the guts to say anything at all.

“The fear is too strong,” Kennedy says. “People don’t know what to do. They think, ‘Oh my god, how bad is this going to look? What are we going to do now that we’ve let this guy operate right under our noses? We better keep quiet.’ But it can’t work like that anymore.”

Does Kennedy blame Paterno?

“Does he have grandkids? (Yes, 17.) How would he feel if it were one of his grandkids in that shower with the coach? What would he have done? Somehow, the perpetrator felt welcome at that school. We need systems in place that make perpetrators feel unwelcome.”

What must those boys feel like, right now, as all this darkness gets played out in front of the camera lights?

“Probably second-guessing themselves,” Kennedy says. “Coming forward doesn’t get these boys any further ahead in life. It isn’t easy. But it has to happen.”

The road these boys are on now is endless and buckled and uphill. Some will hate their parents for not protecting them and hate themselves for hating them. They will hate the pervert for tricking them and hate themselves for being tricked. And just when they think this cruel and long legal process is over, it can start all over again.

Imagine: Kennedy’s abuser, James, got 3½ years but was pardoned by the Canadian National Parole Board in 2007. Currently, he is out on bail, awaiting sentencing on nine more counts of sexual abuse and who knows how many more sinister trips to motel rooms.

If all these charges turn out to be true, though, soon he and Sandusky will both be going to prison — a place where, with any luck, they will feel most unwelcome.