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Sex abuse 'biggest epidemic on the planet,' Fleury says

Ex-NHLer addresses local conference

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Theoren Fleury has conquered his demons from the sexual abuse he endured as a youth but he'll never stop the healing process.

The former NHL hockey star and native of Russell, Man., knows he can't bury in the back of his mind the abuse he sustained at the hands of his former junior coach, Graham James, so he's going to continue to be upfront and open about it.

Fleury, 43, was one of the keynote speakers at the Childhood Sexual Abuse: Resilience and Healing conference held Thursday at the Norwood Hotel.

"A person has to continually grow. Just because you've overcome one obstacle in your life (doesn't mean there aren't more to come,)" he said.

"I'm always learning. I've only been around this subject for four or five years."

Fleury knows his role at conferences such as this one -- to bring awareness to what he calls the "biggest epidemic on the planet."

"I'm not a healer and I'm not a helper. For many years, we've tried to sweep (sexual abuse) under the rug. We can't get around that anymore," he said.

There was a time after James' trial Fleury thought he was "good." He realized, however, that he couldn't stand still with his recovery and he decided to step back and do some "self-care." Thanks to some work with a great therapist in Calgary he's better than ever.

"I've refound myself and refocused on the next part of my life. I was able to find some caring, loving people that helped me fill my toolbox. I wasn't living my life, I was basically coping. Now I live my life one day at a time. I don't drink and I don't do drugs. I make better choices and I don't hang out with people who are hurt and angry," he said.

The genesis of the conference was Fleury's 2009 autobiography, Playing With Fire, in which he outlined in graphic detail the abuse he suffered, the multiple addictions that he clung to as coping mechanisms and the downward spiral that nearly culminated in him taking his own life.

Linda Burnside, a therapist at the Aulneau Renewal Centre in St. Boniface, applauded Fleury's bravery in coming forward.

"(Sexual abuse) is very difficult for men and boys to acknowledge. Theo really is a role model and an inspiration that says, 'You can talk about it, you can heal and it's not your fault,' " she said.

Fleury may have an opportunity to take his legacy to a new level this summer. He's scheduled to meet with a number of high-ranking federal officials about new laws to get tougher on sexual abusers of children.

Fleury is also a regular user of social media to promote various events and people in the fight against sexual abuse. His Twitter account @TheoFleury14 has nearly 51,000 followers.

"It's a fantastic tool if it's used properly," he said.

Playing With Fire is reportedly the No. 1-selling autobiography in Canadian history and a sequel is in the works, which will focus on becoming a victor over his abuse and his abuser and becoming an advocate for healing and change.

He said he wouldn't change a thing in his life -- his hockey accomplishments include a Stanley Cup ring and an Olympic gold medal -- but he's committed to increasing awareness of the scourge of sexual abuse so more people can start their own healing process.

"I think everybody has a miracle inside. They just have to go and find it," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2012 A8

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