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  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 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.”
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.”
For more information about the Child Sexual Abuse Conference — including archived conference footage — visit protectchildren.psu.edu.
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.”
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 corrective steps aren’t seen as genuine. Even the brutal self criticism of those who failed to protect an injured child — which sometimes can be even harsher than the external judgments – do little to calm the rage and disdain from those of us standing on the sidelines.
I heard stories over lunch from Penn State staff members who’d never even met Jerry Sandusky who were subjected to repeated tirades, insults, and threats because of their connection to the institution. They were deemed guilty by association, casualties of “us and them” thinking. …
Here was the Penn State community working to identify and to understand its failings and to take responsibility for the harm that individuals experienced. As one who believes in firm accountability for actions or inactions that hurt children, I’m not easily snowed. I was impressed during my two days in State College with the Penn State community’s promise to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes and to share those lessons with others who are in a position to prevent further harm and move toward healing.
Read Peter Pollard’s full blog post, “Two Days in the Storm.”