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January 2013

After Jerry Sandusky

By Katie Kervin, Assistant Editor
suffered abuse at the hands of his Olympic boxing coach; and Elizabeth Smart, the then-14-year-old victim of a high-profile kidnapping and rape case in Salt Lake City in 2002.

While Smart and Leonard make frequent speaking appearances, CSAC was a unique experience for both of them. Smart's father registered as a participant — which organizers didn't even know until shortly before the conference opened. For Leonard, CSAC was even more intense. “Sugar Ray Leonard took a long time to reach a decision because, as he revealed at the conference, it was only the second time he's spoken publicly about his childhood sexual abuse,” Driftmier said. “He was having a hard time at moments [while he was speaking], but he knew that he needed to say the things that he did, and he ended his talk by saying that he hopes he can now become a spokesperson.”

Surmountable Challenges

Every meeting planner faces challenges, but organizing a conference on such a controversial topic — with such a direct association with Penn State — presented a host of unique obstacles. The first one that Driftmier identified had to do with politics and perception: Because the event was a joint effort among administrators, the board of trustees, and faculty, it was crucial that the program represent Penn State well. Additionally, CSAC was a collaborative effort among departments as well as various organizations outside Penn State. Because of these issues, Driftmier acted as a co-chair of the event, serving as a sort of neutral coordinator to ensure that all viewpoints were heard and represented.

Media coverage also presented some challenges. “Penn State's under a microscope,” Driftmier said. “We needed to publicize this [conference], and publicize it in a manner that was accurate and true to what we were trying to accomplish. … We ultimately had more press at this event and attending this event than we've had at any single conference we've held here at Penn State.” Media included representatives from the Associated Press, Reuters, Fox News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and various television outlets and local press.

Complicating things further, CSAC took place just after Superstorm Sandy slammed the East Coast. While the impact in central Pennsylvania was only moderate, travel for some participants was affected. The conference ended up with about 80 cancellations and no-shows among attendees, along with two speakers who weren't able to make it, but planners were able to compensate by allowing walk-up registrants and extending the time of certain sessions.

So, Why A Conference?

One of the biggest questions looming over CSAC as it got under way was why Penn State decided that a major conference was the best way to deal with the topic of child sexual abuse. The answer had to do with a desire to provide comprehensive information, education, and support — and a realization that there may be no better way of doing that than by convening a gathering of the people most affected. “I think you have to get people talking about child sexual abuse,” Driftmier said. “So we provided a foundation in the basics. … We also haven't as a society made it easy for people to talk about this, but we're not going to change what's happening if we avoid it.”

Both Driftmier and Staley found the response to CSAC to be overwhelmingly positive. With attendee representation from more than 30 states ranging from survivors of child sexual abuse to educators and legislators, there were a number of different interests to cater to. “I think some came in a little bit cynical,” Driftmier said. “They walked away, judging from the comments and the hugs I received, with a really strong sense that Penn State had a commitment to making a difference — and that this conference was a venue to bring the right people together in order to start the conversations that need to take place.”

Both researchers and practitioners in the field told Staley during and after CSAC that the combination of academic presentations and personal survivor stories, along with the fact that the event brought together members of both the professional and local communities, created a valuable experience. And on a practical level, many attendees who work in the area of child sexual abuse met people that they could collaborate with in the future. “It exceeded even my hopes for what it could achieve,” said Staley, who described being a part of the event as “a privilege.” She added: “I felt like it had such meaning. When you pair a good program and good speakers with something that has great meaning, you really can make a big difference.”

More Resources

For more information about the Child Sexual Abuse Conference — including archived conference footage — visit protectchildren.psu.edu.

Sidebar: CSAC Online

Before registration opened, Child Sexual Abuse Conference (CSAC) organizers had discussed livestreaming portions of the program, but when it sold out so quickly, they went full speed ahead with the plan. Most sessions were recorded and livestreamed via YouTube during the conference - with the exception of those presentations deemed too sensitive by the speakers themselves, such as one that included video clips of therapy sessions with child sexual abuse victims, or those blocked by contractual obligations, such as Elizabeth Smart's.

“The streaming was critical,” said Penn State's Pamela Driftmier. “We want this content to live, and we're utilizing the website to do that.” Archived footage is still available at protectchildren.psu.edu, which Penn State plans to make a portal for resources on child sexual abuse and information about future CSAC events.

CSAC also made use of Twitter, allowing both attendees and remote participants to ask questions of speakers and comment on the program. In all, the #CSAC12 hashtag received more than 2,300 tweets over the three-day conference. A dedicated Penn State staffer monitored the Twitter stream throughout each session and sorted through questions that were posed to speakers. “The room was extremely large, and it would have been difficult to have individuals stand up and ask questions,” Driftmier said. “We weren't afraid to ask any questions, but it was a matter of trying to select the questions that would impact the most people or would perhaps help the speaker elaborate.”

Sidebar: The Attendee Perspective

Peter Pollard, training and outreach director at 1in6, an organization that provides support for men who have been sexually abused, wrote a blog post about his impressions as an attendee of Penn State's Child Sexual Abuse Conference. Below is an excerpt from the post, which was part of 1in6's Thursday series at joyfulheartfoundation.org, a nonprofit group founded by actress Mariska Hargitay that is dedicated to helping sexual-abuse survivors “heal and reclaim their lives.”

As a visitor to State College Pennsylvania last week, I was deeply moved by both the awareness of their tragedy and their determination to heal. The community showed a dogged commitment to squarely face and to nurture a path to recovery from the chaos that's surfaced since the arrest a year ago of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky on multiple charges of sexual abuse. …

As an outsider, the lessons were rich and the insights humbling. What struck me most deeply were the similarities in experience I heard again and again from members of the Penn State community and the pain I witnessed during my 15 years as a child-protection social worker within families where children were sexually abused.

Widespread misconceptions about the dynamics of sexual abuse seem to inevitably lead to self-righteous critiques from outsiders against anyone even remotely involved with the abusive person. Often, efforts to take

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