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Penn State’s obligation to lead during child sexual abuse conference


October 28, 2012

This article originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times

Deborah Jacobs

All eyes are on Penn State this week as it begins to to atone for the past with the convening of its first public conference on child sexual abuse.

As the beleaguered university attempts to make a dramatic shift from betrayer to champion of children, will it live up to President Rodney Erickson’s professed “commitment to becoming a leader in the research, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse?”

Actions will speak louder than words.

Although billed as an exploration of “Traumatic Impact, Prevention and Intervention,” a look at the conference agenda reveals that it actually devotes stunningly little time to strategies for prevention of child sexual abuse.

Only two of the 15 hours have any mention of prevention, and those focus on the study of offender habits. Moreover, the five-point conference goals and takeaways completely neglect prevention. The agenda also lacks non-academic experts who specialize in child sexual abuse such as the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, Darkness to Light, Stop it Now or Prevent Child Abuse America.

Educating people about how to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse is one of the most important things we can do to protect vulnerable children, and no conference on child sexual abuse should be convened without attention to this vital issue. Families, community members and youth-serving organizations like The Second Mile need clear guidelines and practices to prevent and respond to sexual threats and assaults. The conference also falls short when it comes to the concerns of victims. Nowhere on the conference website will you find mention of the very tragedy that prompted Penn State’s sudden interest in our nation’s most damaging epidemic.

Imagine how that stings for the very victims that inspired Penn State’s newfound interest in the epidemic of child sex abuse. An essential element of recovery from child sex abuse is acknowledgement and responsibility-taking, including authentic expressions of remorse and accountability, by those who failed to protect them.

If Penn State seeks to educate the public on how to help victims, it must first set an example in the treatment of its own. Whatever its intent, Penn State’s lack of acknowledgement and ownership of its mistakes at its inaugural initiative on child sexual abuse gives the perception that officials remain more concerned with self-preservation or appearances than with the well-being of victims, and will choose its own priorities over its responsibility to children and community.

To the extent that the conference agenda includes survivors of abuse as speakers, it again misses the mark. While it does feature boxer Sugar Ray Leonard – who was sexually abused by an Olympic coach as a teenager – the choice of VIP speaker Elizabeth Smart distracts not only from Penn State’s own child sexual abuse story, but from the reality that the vast majority of sexual abuse victims know their perpetrators and are groomed and betrayed by those responsible for protecting them.

While one cannot minimize the heinous trauma that Smart endured, highlighting her story feeds into the rare instance of “stranger danger,” which offers more in fodder for politicians than it does in protection of children, all while diverting attention and resources from effective prevention programs. It’s well established that the vast majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by people known and trusted by victims.

This conference marks the beginning of Penn State’s journey as it attempts to develop expertise and credibility in an area in which it failed so shamefully, and it marks the moment for Penn State to show that it will take the time and effort to get it right.

Penn State can benefit from the work and expertise of those who have fought to prevent child sexual abuse on the ground for years. As it moves forward to consider a process and priorities for its efforts relating to child sexual abuse, it will need that expertise to ensure that the resources it commits go to the most effective measures to prevent child sexual abuse.

The worst part of the Penn State story is that officials could have prevented the violation of numerous young people. The best part of its story should be a true leadership role and relentless focus on advancing strategies for prevention in the aftermath of its failures.

Deborah Jacobs is vice president of advocacy and policy at the Ms. Foundation for Women, a national foundation working to end child sexual abuse.

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