French child rape case is another lesson about sports abuse

BORDEAUX, France (AP) — The victims’ parents regarded him as a family friend, unaware of the tortures he was inflicting on their children behind closed doors.

His past glories as a champion swimmer helped lull admirers into thinking that Vincent Leroyer was reliable, someone to look up to. Yet the truth, finally aired at his trial in southwest France this week for raping and sexually assaulting children, was that the ex-elite athlete — like other notorious sports officials and coaches — was using his position to brutalize young people.

The success of the championship-winning ice hockey team Leroyer managed also lent him an aura of prestige. It helped him to carry out and hide his abuses, spread across a decade in the 1980s and ’90s, on boys aged six to 14. The 61-year-old was sentenced Wednesday to 12 years imprisonment on five counts of child sex abuse and one of child rape. His victims, now in their 30s and 40s, hugged after the verdict was pronounced.

In the greater scheme of things, Leroyer is a sporting nobody. The court in Bordeaux heard how injuries derailed his swimming career in the 1970s before he could compete for France on the world stage in his specialty discipline, the backstroke.

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Still, Leroyer’s three-day trial highlighted how, in the wrong hands, the lure and power of sports can act as poison. That lent this case relevance for all those engaged, near and far, in sports today.

Success in sports, as an athlete and administrator, opened doors that otherwise likely would have remained closed to the single man riddled with insecurities and with no family or children of his own.

It gave him access to kids, the most naïve and, by extension, most vulnerable admirers of sporting success.

And it helped him mystify parents who were grateful to have such a “friend,” a sports insider who not only could get match tickets for their hockey-playing kids but who also offered to transport them here and there and let them sleep over after late-night games. It was at his apartment near the ice rink, on a sofa bed, that some of the assaults took place.

“We talk of sport being a family. Well, here, there was a wolf in the family,” said the father of two of Leroyer’s victims, both men in their 30s who have wrestled with addiction, unstable relationships and other blockages to a happy life since they were systematically abused.

Because Leroyer committed his crimes decades ago, in the Normandy town of Rouen, it would be easy to think that his trial, which barely made national news even in France, offered little in the way of lessons for parents, kids or those involved in sports today.

But Leroyer’s victims specifically asked that the proceedings be held in open court because they feel their suffering could help inform others. If the destruction of their childhoods can spare others, then perhaps their pain might take on some glimmer of meaning.

And methods Leroyer employed to befriend families and abuse their children are by no means unique to Rouen or to France.

Former rugby player Sebastien Boueilh, who crisscrosses France delivering classes on how to combat pedophilia in sports and sharing his experience as a victim of child sexual abuse himself, says predators typically target families’ vulnerabilities.

“In a group of 20 kids, they’ll target the kid whose parents are separating or who don’t have the time,” Boueilh, who was not involved in the Leroyer trial, said in a phone interview. “When they have everyone’s trust, they go after the child.”

In Leroyer’s case, he wormed his way into families with marital difficulties and where fathers were often absent for work; families where his offers to help, to take kids to games, for burger meals, on holiday and even to tuck them in at night, were gratefully accepted, out of trust or necessity.

One father told the court “it helped us out” when Leroyer offered to keep his son overnight after taking him to see hockey matches, not knowing the boy was being assaulted, abuse that left him an insomniac from age 11 and later led to battles with addiction.

The father with two sons who were abused said the Rouen Hockey Club’s success, with five national championships during Leroyer’s tenure as manager from 1986-1996, contributed to lower their guard.

“We had stars in our eyes,” he told The Associated Press in an interview during a break in the hearings. “In any other situation, I’d never have let this happen.”

In summing up the case against Leroyer for the jury, prosecutor Martine Cazaban-Pouchet said: “It helped the families to have someone who said, ‘I’m available.'” She had asked for a prison sentence of 12 to 14 years.

Without trust, there would be no grassroots sports: parents wouldn’t let kids out of the house, depriving them of rich and rewarding relationships with adult coaches, and there’d be no carpooling, so sports clubs wouldn’t tick.

“There are many, many more good volunteers than predators,” Boueilh notes.

Still, he says families should protect themselves by never allowing kids to go back to the house of an adult coach or sports official. Parents should insist kids come straight home from events. And kids should always sit in the back, out of reach of the driver’s hands, he says.

Advice that perhaps, just perhaps, might have helped thwart Leroyer and prevent the damage that endures for his victims.

“You have to be paranoid,” said the father of two victims in the AP interview. “Our only error was to have given him our trust and to never have thought to ourselves that we would be manipulated.”

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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