STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Survivors of child sexual abuse said Sunday night the problem cannot be combated unless people are willing to talk about it openly.
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At a two-hour panel discussion at Penn State University, two-time Olympic swimmer Margaret Hoelzer, state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop (D., Phila.), and Christopher Anderson, executive director of MaleSurvivor, shared personal stories of being abused as children with an audience of about 150 people.
It was the opening session of "Child Sexual Abuse Conference: Traumatic Impact, Prevention and Intervention," a three-day gathering that hopes to shed more light on a problem that gained national attention after former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on child sex abuse charges last November.
The panelists said more resources and treatment for victims and survivors will become available if the issue gains more attention and awareness.
Williams Bishop said the Sandusky scandal was just a conversation starter because the issue has been going on for years.
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.
"There are Sanduskys in almost every community in the United States," Anderson said. "There are survivors in every community in the United States."
Hoelzer said Sandusky was able to abuse children because he gained the trust of those within the university and surrounding community. In her case, she said a friend's father -- someone she admired -- abused her.
"Sex offenders wouldn't be successful if we didn't trust them," Hoelzer said. "They wouldn't be successful if they were creepy, and they looked funny and they all drove the creepy van from 'Silence of the Lambs.'"
Most of the time, sex offenders are well-respected and trusted members of a community, which enables them to prey on children, said Dr. Cindy Christian, a nationally recognized expert on child abuse and member of Pennsylvania's Task Force on Child Protection. Christian moderated the panel discussion, which lasted more than two hours.
Retired boxing champ Sugar Ray Leonard and former kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart, both abuse survivors, are the featured speakers at the conference on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.
Despite expecting Hurricane Sandy to rip through the state, conference organizers said the events are expected to proceed as planned.
"The severity of this problem, outweighs the severity of the storm," Penn State Vice President Tom Poole said.