Philadelphia • Hoping to raise awareness, Pennsylvania State University this week will hold a two-day conference on child sex abuse, coming nearly one year after the release of the blistering grand jury presentment outlining child rape and molestation by its former assistant football coach.
Keynote speakers include Elizabeth Smart, the Utah teen who was kidnapped, raped and held for months and boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard, who also suffered sex abuse as a child. Experts will discuss the effect of abuse, the best and latest in treatment and prevention, the use of the internet by pedophiles and other topics during the event; which begins Monday at the Penn Stater Hotel.
More than 500 faculty, students, law enforcement, child care workers and others registered to attend the event, which sold out faster than any other conference in Penn State’s history, said Kate Staley, co-developer of the conference and a clinical child psychologist at Penn State. Tickets went for $145 per adult and $45 per student and were gone in three and a half weeks, she said. Registrants are from 26 states as far away as California and also include a Penn State graduate class.
Much of the event, which will be held in one room, will be live-streamed, archived and available through the university’s website for free.
Organizers hope to raise awareness of the prevalence of child sex abuse and educate and inspire people to act.
“We really wanted to engage people’s hearts” as well as their minds, Staley said, explaining the decision to bring in Smart and Leonard.
The university on Sunday night also will host a free event open to the public featuring three child sex abuse survivors, including Democratic state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, who revealed last November in the Capitol Rotunda her abuse at the hands of her stepfather at age 12.
The conference again will foist Pennsylvania’s flagship university into the national limelight - but this time, officials hope, for a good reason.
“It’s really to engage a national network of experts,” said Penn State President Rodney Erickson. “We said early on . . . Penn State would become a leader and do its part to raise awareness of this issue and to assist in efforts to prevent, to treat and raise awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse.”
Erickson on Wednesday will address media at the National Press Club in Washington.
Penn State declined to release the cost of putting on the conference, saying it would be covered by registration fees and the president’s office.
Much has happened at the university since the grand jury testimony in explicit detail described how Sandusky sexually abused young boys he met through the Second Mile, a charity he founded for underprivileged youth.
Sandusky, 68, was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison this month for assaults on 10 young boys.
Both former Penn State President Graham B. Spanier and iconic football Coach Joe Paterno were forced out of their jobs over accusations that they failed to act on earlier allegations. Paterno later died of cancer. The university’s suspended athletic director Tim Curley and ex-vice president Gary Schultz are scheduled to go on trial in January for allegedly lying to the grand jury and failing to report allegations.
And the university is still reeling from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s sweeping sanctions, taking away football scholarships and prohibiting bowl play for several seasons.
The matter continues to command extra attention from Penn State’s board of trustees, who on Friday voted unanimously to grant a board subcommittee authority to negotiate possible settlement claims with Sandusky’s victims.
Faculty, students and child abuse experts said the conference could help the Penn State community heal and move on and serve a larger purpose.
“It may actually move the whole national debate on child abuse forward,” said Temple University professor Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association. “Penn State is at the epicenter of this topic, and therefore people will pay more attention. It will have more impact.”
Tom Kline, the Philadelphia lawyer representing a 26-year-old man who is known as Victim Five, also endorsed the move.
“It’s encouraging to see Penn State hold such a conference and see what appears to be a genuine commitment to change, reform and sensitivity to issues to which they were blind previously,” he said. But he added that Penn State also should honor its “first commitment” to compensate the victims.
Sue Cornbluth, a Temple University psychology professor and clinical psychologist who has counseled child victims before they testify, said the conference “sends a great message to the victims.”
“They (Penn State) really are trying to do more to give back now and make amends,” said Cornbluth, who frequently has offered commentary on the Sandusky case.
Laura March, 27, a graduate student and State College native, praised the university for a conference that will explore the root causes of child abuse and how to stop it.
She, along with her boyfriend, Stuart Shapiro, also a graduate student, started Blue Out, an event in which students were encouraged to don blue - the nationally recognized color symbolizing child abuse awareness - during a major home football game. Since then, Blue Out has partnered with One Heart, another student group, and they have raised $126,000, most of it donated to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
“We were so distraught and couldn’t really focus our emotions on anything beyond trying to make things better,” March said, pleased that Penn State is sharing that focus with the conference.
With a new school year under way, the campus is beginning to settle into a “new normal,” said Larry Cata Backer, head of Penn State’s faculty senate and an international affairs professor. Communication across the campus has increased, he said.
“We talk with each other more. We engage with each other more. The new normal is a great thing,” he said. “We would have learned nothing if we had gone back to the old normal.”
The university is working to change its policies, so that, for example, the human resources department is poised to screen and catch problems, such as child abuse allegations early on, he said.
“I am surprised at how proactive our top leadership has been and how much effort it is taking to move the ship along,” he said, citing the national conference as another positive effort.
Penn State also has launched the Center for the Protection of Children at the Hershey Medical Center and donated to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.
The idea for the conference started with Staley and her boss, Doris MacKenzie, director of Penn State’s Justice Center for Research. They were perplexed by the lack of information and misinformation swirling on the topic as the Sandusky scandal continued to rock the university.
Staley hopes the event helps the university community to continue to move forward while serving as a “springboard for conversation around the nation.”
©2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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