Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Protecting children from abusers is everyone's responsibilty

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The next time you're at the rink tying up your kid's skates, have a look around. The next Sidney Crosby could be in the room.

Or Theo Fleury. Or Sheldon Kennedy. Or Greg Gilhooly.

Or Graham James.

There are any number of lessons we can learn from the dark reign of Graham James, but preventing the next sinister beast from rising to power, and halting the abuse before it begins, has to be a priority.

As a society and a community tied together by hockey, we'd be naive to believe there isn't another James among us. Of course, there is great joy and mentorship going on in our rinks. But there are also opportunities for predators to set their traps.

Somewhere in this country, it's happening right now. A coach or a teacher or a minister is taking advantage of a child and abusing him or her, or preparing to begin a cycle of secrecy and destruction.

"There's no way Graham is alone. There are others out there," Gilhooly said this week.

We can't be frozen as parents and kids and not participate in sport or Scouts or Girl Guides. We have to live our lives and enjoy the great things our country has to offer. So we have to be vigilant, and not just about our own flesh and blood.

"I don't think other people were involved, but I think people must have had suspicions that something odd was going on and that there was certainly enough noise in the air for people to dig a bit deeper and ask questions that weren't asked," said Gilhooly, who has told his story of abuse at the hands of James during the late 1970s and early '80s.

Hockey Canada's Todd Jackson says they've put a policy in place to help prevent abuse.

"We wanted to be preventive as well as reactive in our policy. Hockey Canada doesn't want any form of abuse, whether it be bullying or any form of harassment," said Jackson.

"We have our Speak Out program that encourages kids to report any issues they encounter and gives them a place to go with that information. Our branches across the country mandate that their coaches take the Speak Out program. We have to educate. Screening doesn't catch everything. We have to educate our parents what to look for and to be aware."

One thing we know about Graham James, and other abusers, is they pick victims that don't always have advocates. They search out kids from broken homes who are starved for love and approval and then torque those needs into an entry point for their own evil wants.

"We have to keep reinforcing to kids that if they come forward their voices will be heard. Whether it's an adult or a parent on the team or the police. The kids need to be empowered if something untoward is going on," said Gilhooly.

So ask your kids questions and don't be afraid to ask other kids what's going on in their lives. If you have suspicions, take action.

"Graham was operating 30 years ago in a very different world where things like this weren't discussed," said Gilhooly.

"I think society has evolved and is evolving. The people that were around Graham are probably kicking themselves for not having done more back then.

"Let's not repeat the mistakes of the past. If you have a feeling in your gut that something isn't right, act on it. Dig deeper. You may offend somebody. Not everybody that is causing a situation that rubs your gut the wrong way is a guilty party. But by all means, let's err on the side of protecting the kids."

Most of us have parents that want to protect us. But even they can be fooled. James wasn't a drooling sex offender poster boy. He was an evil Machiavellian genius.

"I had strong parents advocating for me," said Gilhooly. "The difficult part of my situation is that it was an absolutely secret relationship. Graham wasn't my coach and the pressure on me was to always keep my contact with Graham secret. If my father had known for a moment that I was training with Graham or being advised by Graham, he would have put the kibosh to it."

After close to 20 years of making a living around pro hockey at one level or another, I've gotten to know a lot of people in the game. Hockey is like any other segment of society, with good traits and flaws. We can't pretend it's a happy, shiny place absent of people bent on wrongdoing. We know better.

People like Graham James, as we've so painfully learned, can exist and succeed and perpetrate their evil in our game. He did and someone else will try again.

But we can stop them. Together, by looking out for one another and by talking out loud about abuse of any kind, be it sexual, physical or verbal, we can stop the next Graham James before he or she gets started.

Let's find the next Sid. And the next Graham, too.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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