Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

January 2013

After Jerry Sandusky

By Katie Kervin, Assistant Editor

In the aftermath of its devastating sexual abuse scandal, Penn State decided that the best way to move forward was to help victims everywhere — by convening the Child Sexual Abuse Conference.


The repercussions from the child sexual abuse scandal that shook Pennsylvania State University in the fall of 2011 were severe. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) imposed significant penalties against the football program that had employed Jerry Sandusky as an assistant coach — including a $60-million fine and a post-season ban of four years. Joe Paterno, Penn State's iconic football coach, was fired in November 2011, and passed away shortly thereafter. University President Graham Spanier, who resigned from his post that same month, was recently charged along with two other administrators with perjury, obstruction of justice, and endangering children in the alleged cover-up of the whole scandal.

But none of that mattered as much as the damage to the lives of the children whom Sandusky abused, and Penn State was determined to build something positive for them, and for victims everywhere. “Our central university administration made a commitment last November [2011] to become a place that people could go to learn about child sexual abuse,” said Pamela Driftmier, M.Ed., Penn State's director of conferences, “and for Penn State to develop a reputation and provide research, training, and opportunities for people to come together around this topic, in the hope of ultimately preventing child sexual abuse.”

No small task, of course, especially given the backlash that Penn State experienced from the public as the scandal unfolded, making people skeptical of how the university might address the sensitive topic. But in the end, the Penn State Justice Center for Research, the College of the Liberal Arts, and Penn State Outreach decided to hold the Child Sexual Abuse Conference on Traumatic Impact, Prevention, and Intervention (CSAC).

The “amount of misinformation and lack of information about child sexual abuse that became clear in the conversations people were having about the scandal” had prompted the Justice Center for Research to plan on holding a conference on the topic even before it knew the school's board of trustees had also decided on one, said Kate Staley, Ph.D., a research scientist with the Justice Center for Research and CSAC's main content organizer. When she and Doris MacKenzie, Ph.D., head of the Justice Center for Research, realized they didn't want to plan an additional, and possibly conflicting, conference, the obvious answer was to join forces with the board — which ended up asking the Justice Center to organize the event.

The Space Between

Initially, Penn State administration wanted to hold CSAC in April 2012, a mere five months after Sandusky's indictment on 52 counts of sexual crimes against children, and two months before his trial was scheduled to begin. But with such short notice, and given the large number of conferences that Penn State hosts each year, the space for an event of the size organizers were planning — more than 500 attendees and members of the press from across the country — simply wasn't available. Organizers turned their attention to fall, when there were two dates available in October. They settled on Oct. 29-30 at the Penn Stater Conference Hotel in State College, Penn., about two miles off campus.

“We took the meeting space that we had, and then we designed the conference around that space,” Driftmier said, “with the goal of maximizing the number of attendees and providing them with the experience where they could network with each other.” CSAC programming took place almost entirely in the Penn Stater's Presidents Hall, a 10,650-square-foot ballroom that was divided into four sections — three set in round tables to accommodate attendees, a stage, and space for press in the back of the room, and the fourth set aside for 25 exhibitors who ranged from national advocacy groups like the KidSafe Foundation and MaleSurvior to Penn State organizations such as One Heart, a coalition of students against the sexual abuse of children. “We did everything in [the ballroom],” Driftmier said. “Everything from the meetings, the keynote lectures, to feeding people lunch. … We had to do our buffet lines actually in the hallway outside these four rooms, as well as our coffee service.”

With the space procured, Staley — who had never planned a conference before — and MacKenzie then set out to decide on the scope of CSAC and whom they were trying to reach. “I think the fact that we were hearing all this misinformation [about sexual abuse],” Staley said, “in the community and from Penn Staters, that it rapidly became very clear that we wanted to reach a lay audience — that we did not just want it to be an academic/ research audience. … The misinformation was very much among our neighbors, our friends, the local and regional media.”

To promote the conference and attract attendees, the Justice Center sent out a number of mass-market emails “to very specific constituencies,” Staley said. “A whole bunch of university constituencies [and] to everybody we could think of that was child-related, from churches to schools.” Penn State also hired public-relations firm Edelman — which has offices across the country and is experienced in managing controversial issues for large institutions such as colleges and universities — to help promote the conference.

Their efforts paid off: CSAC sold out just three weeks after registration opened. Between the limited event space and the sensitive nature of the topic, attendees would be carefully contained in one area of the hotel. Penn State had staff members on hand checking credentials — participant, media, and staff — of anyone who tried to gain access to the hallway where the meeting rooms were located.

‘The Heart Of Someone’

From the outset, the organizers knew that they wanted CSAC to be a research-based conference with substantive content. The plan was to focus on the epidemiology of child sexual abuse, how it affects young children and adolescents, and treatment and prevention — almost a 101-style lesson on the topic. “We really wanted it to be based in research,” Staley said, “because that draws from Penn State's strengths — we are a top-notch research institution.” But as a researcher herself, she knew that it was important to find speakers who could translate their evidence-based work into terms that would be accessible and understandable to the lay audience, which included members of the Penn State community. “I believe, as a therapist and a researcher, that change comes from increasing people's knowledge — increasing their awareness that there is a problem and how prevalent it is — and then engaging their hearts so that they feel the need and the understanding and the motivation to change.”

There would be experts such as Lucy Berliner, MSW, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle, and David Finkelhor, Ph.D., director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who would help draw practitioners in the field, including professionals working in education, human services, law enforcement, medicine, and mental health. But organizers also needed to find speakers with broader appeal. “You want to have the heart of someone telling you their personal story and how it impacted them,” Staley said. Organizers took a look at a number of survivors of child sexual abuse who had some celebrity behind them, and settled on boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, who revealed in his 2011 autobiography that he

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