After having its reputation tarnished by a child sexual abuse scandal, Penn State wants to become a national leader in researching and preventing such abuse and sees a conference it's hosting this weekend as a major step toward that goal.
Organizers of the three-day gathering called "Child Sexual Abuse Conference: Traumatic Impact, Prevention and Intervention," hope the event sheds more light on a problem that gained national attention after former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sex abuse charges last November.
Retired boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard and former kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart, both abuse survivors, are the featured speakers at a conference that also will include academic and clinical experts on child molestation and trauma.
"We see this is a potentially catalyzing event for opening up a national discussion," said conference organizer and scientist Kate Staley of the Penn State Justice Center for Research. "Hopefully this serves to be a starting point."
Sandusky, 68, was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison earlier this month after being convicted on dozens of criminal counts covering abuse allegations both on and off campus.
The conference, which starts with a panel discussion Sunday night with abuse survivors, is scheduled nearly a year after Sandusky was first arrested.
Staley said the idea for the gathering came up in January after she and other organizers saw media reports about child sexual abuse that either provided misinformation or gaps in knowledge about the topic.
One such distortion had to do with the prevalence of the problem; it was higher than some media reports suggested. Staley said a recent national survey found about 9 percent of children were sexual abuse victims — and that number could be higher considering cases that never get reported.
Sandusky was convicted on charges dating back to 1998 after state authorities began investigating in 2009.
One of the main conference goals is to reach out to a broad audience, beyond researchers and police. Other conferences on the topic are typically more focused on the academic or law enforcement community.
"In the wake of the tragedy that happened there, Penn State's leadership rightly recognized that they had a responsibility to advance the conversation about child sexual abuse," Smart said in a statement provided by a university spokeswoman.
Smart said she is honored to be part of a conference that she hopes "will serve to help educate individuals and communities to identify and prevent child sexual abuse."
In 2002, Smart was kidnapped at knifepoint at age 14 and held captive for nine months. Since her rescue, Smart has become more involved in advocacy work for victims, including the formation of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.