The Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Conference concluded its second day of presentations Tuesday with a variety of speakers who spoke of their experience with sexual abuse and effective preventative measures.
The first speaker was the second Olympic athlete to take the stage at the conference. Margaret Hoelzer, known for her three Olympic medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics in swimming, told her story of abuse to the crowd of hundreds.
It was her friend’s father who had abused her from the age of 5 until she was 7, Hoelzer said. He had told her it was their “little secret.”
And when her friend’s family moved away, she kept their “secret” to herself until she was about 11 years old.
Hoelzer said she watched videos in school about abuse similar to what she experienced and had always felt uncomfortable. It wasn’t until she spoke with a friend that she realized her story had to be told.
When she told her mother the story of her abuse, she said her mother had done everything right to help. They called the police and were told to contact the advocacy center.
After receiving help from her mother and the advocacy center, Hoelzer was able to kickstart her swimming career, using a lot of her energy and emotions to beat on the water.
“I am proud to be a survivor,” she said. “I am mentally stronger than everyone else here.”
Hoelzer added that people affected by child sexual abuse can use their experience and convert it into the same power that she did to get past it. She now serves as a national spokesperson for the National Children’s Advocacy Center because of her experience with child sexual abuse.
“Sexual abuse is not the end of the world. It’s a hurdle. It’s not a fun one, but its not the end of the road,” she said.
Chris Anderson, executive director of MaleSurvivor, also spoke Monday morning and added his point of view as a child sexual abuse survivor. Anderson made several points for people to keep in mind about survivors, such as the wide range of effects for sexual abuse, even when the abuse has been similar. Every survivor of sexual abuse is a unique individual, he said.
“Everybody I know who has gone through recovery and who has gone through a healing process has needed these three things: hope, healing and support,” he said.
Anderson said he remembered being abused by a neighbor once when he was a child, though it could have happened more times.
He also said he was severely critical of the term “pedophile” because of the root “philo,” which means “loving.”
“There is nothing loving about abuse,” he said. “And when we use that term, we are actually minimizing what is being done.”
Apart from those who spoke on their personal experiences, Lucy Berliner used her Master of Social Work degree and experience as director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress to speak to fellow professionals about preventative measures she has learned and taught when dealing with sexual abuse clients.
Berliner stressed that most therapists are afraid to confront a person affected by child sexual abuse. But what she has found to be an effective measure is to ask them that question first.
“The initial hurdle of doing trauma-focused therapy, is the therapist,” she said.
But people who have a fear -––- for example, a fear of flying –– -will never get over that fear by not flying, she said. The same goes for clients that she is involved with.
“I want to go to the place where most kids are and help the therapists do a better job of helping their clients,” she said.
Spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, Kristin Houser said Berliner did an excellent job of breaking down the barrier that therapists have when treating clients of sexual abuse.
“When it comes to the issue of sex abuse,” Houser said, “people over analyze how delicate [clients] are and [Berliner] did such a great job saying none of that is true.”
Berliner spoke about those who suffered from child abuse who were older children and adolescents whereas Julie Larrieu, professor of clinical psychiatry at Tulane University, who also spoke at the conference, focused on intervention with younger children and their parents.
John E.B. Myers, professor of law at the University of the Pacific, also spoke at the conference about the history of child sexual abuse and how the legal system has changed over the years.
Myers began his speech by saying that protecting children from sexual abuse is not a new idea and protection of children has been a focus for centuries.
“You can find prosecution of child sexual abuse in colonial times and forward,” he said.
There exists a “legacy of skepticism” regarding child sexual abuse over the years from professionals and the general public, he said. Even famous neurologist and psychologist Sigmund Freud contributed to this skepticism with some of his published ideas, Myers said.
When women began going to law schools and becoming professors in the 1970s, Myers said the literature regarding sexual abuse changed greatly.
Myers also discussed the legal improvements for child sexual abuse cases, including the sixth amendment right for children to testify in their own cases. In testifying for their cases, children provide the strongest evidence for their cases, he said.
Myers also said introducing children to the courtroom and letting them know how the process works is a vital step in making them feel comfortable enough to tell the truth.
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