‘It’s not easy to talk about’
Francis encourages victims of sexual abuse to seek help
ROCHESTER, Mich. -- Beckie Francis remembers sitting on her couch last year, staring in amazement as she watched Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts reveal on TV that he was a survivor of sexual abuse.
Francis turned to her husband and told him she could do the same thing.
The women's basketball coach at Oakland University shared her story with parishioners at her suburban Detroit church, and with her players. And now, she is telling everyone else in hopes that it will encourage victims of sexual abuse to seek help, and to assist parents and children to avoid what she endured.
Until now, Francis had not publicly disclosed said that she was sexually assaulted by her dad, who is now deceased, from the age of 4 until she was in the seventh grade. Francis says she doesn't know when her dad died and can't recall the last time she saw him because she blocked him out of her life and mind after the abuse he inflicted on her.
The 47-year-old coach decided to come forward to speak out against the problem, in part because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.
"It's not easy to talk about," Francis said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's something I tried to hold back and hide because I was afraid of what people would think. It's to a point now, where situations are coming out in the media with all kinds of cases from schools, churches, everywhere and I'm tired of it."
And, Francis is trying to do something about it.
She agreed to emcee an event on Oakland's campus Thursday night featuring Erin Merryn, who was sexually abused as a child and now campaigns for increased education and protection from sexual predators. While Francis has been inspired by Brown and Merryn to go public with her past plight, the politician and the advocate are thrilled to have the coach on their team.
"Since telling my own story of abuse, I've been struck by the number of people who say they have drawn strength from it," Brown said. "It is humbling and gratifying to know that I may have given coach Francis the courage to speak out about the abuse she suffered."
Merryn travels around the nation to get versions of "Erin's Law" passed in all 50 states to require schools to adopt policy and create a curriculum that, among other things, would help children understand and talk about sexual abuse. The legislation has been introduced in many states, including Michigan, and enacted in four: Illinois — where the 27-year-old Merryn is from — Missouri, Indiana and Maine, she said.
"It always a help when you have a public figure like Beckie, especially at a university, to come forward like this to encourage other people to not keep their story a secret," Merryn said.
Sandusky's secret was exposed nearly a year ago and the former Penn State assistant football coach was sentenced this month to 30 to 60 years in prison. He was found guilty of raping or fondling boys in a child sex-abuse scandal that disgraced the school, forced the ouster of coach Joe Paterno and brought unprecedented penalties from the NCAA.
Penn State is hosting a child sexual abuse conference later this month. Merryn plans to be there to share information about "Erin's Law" and sign copies of her two books.
"It's good that Penn State is trying to do something positive instead of shoving it under the rug, but at this point, they don't have a choice," Merryn said. "It's unfortunate that it look something like the tragedy at Penn State to bring the world's attention to the monsters, who 93 percent of the time are somebody you trust with your kids, that are in every community."
Francis' path toward going public got a jolt when she heard about Merryn trying to get legislation named after her passed in Michigan. The two women quickly connected and an invite was extended to Merryn by the school to come to campus for a speaking engagement endorsed by the school's administration, which includes Francis' husband, Oakland University President Gary Russi.
The school planned to have counselors on hand to provide support and referrals for anyone after what was expected to be an emotional night.
Francis didn't tell her mother what happened until she was in her 30s, about 15 years ago. Her mom, she said, was "shocked and angry" about what happened in Germantown, N.Y., where Francis was born, raised and abused.
Francis, who has won 218 games with Oakland in 12 seasons, took the team to the 2002 NCAA tournament — only to resign after the season because of ulcerative colitis she later attributed to stress from the abuse she tried to forget. Francis was rehired for the 2005-06 season and led the Golden Grizzlies back to the NCAA tournament.
"Reflecting back, I do believe the fact that I didn't deal with my abuse affected my health and led to my health- and stress-related resignation," Francis said. "During that time away from coaching, I bawled for the first time in my life with therapists and became a Christian."
With professional help and her strong faith, Francis walks and talks with a powerful conviction — confident and comfortable — about her past and her hopes.
"I was in total denial until maybe my 30s, and that's another example of why I want to talk about this," she said. "I know that people are so embarrassed, and they think, 'Oh, I'm just going to forget about it. It was in the past. Move on. Buck up. Suck it up.' But there are so many things. It can affect your health. It just affects your confidence.
"And since I have just let it go, I am happier and healthier than I have ever been. I am totally free."