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In wake of Sandusky scandal, Penn State holds child sex abuse conference

By Mark Shade

STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Pennsylvania State University, which was shaken by a molestation scandal that put former coach Jerry Sandusky in prison and tarnished its famed football program, holds a three-day conference starting this weekend aimed at preventing child abuse.

The conference features child sex abuse survivors Sugar Ray Leonard, a former world boxing champion, and Elizabeth Smart, who was abducted in 2002 and held captive for nine months.

Starting on Sunday, it comes just weeks after Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for molesting 10 boys over more than a decade.

An independent commission by former FBI chief Louis Freeh concluded that university officials were alerted to Sandusky's abuse, did nothing to stop it and decided against reporting it to authorities.

In a rebuke to the school's failure to stop Sandusky's abuse, the NCAA, the governing body of U.S. college sports, fined Penn State $60 million and voided 14 seasons of football victories.

Longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired during the scandal, on grounds he too failed to stop Sandusky. Paterno died in January of lung cancer.

Dr. Kate Staley, a member of Penn State's Justice Center for Research and lead organizer of the conference, said the event was not meant to be an attempt by the university to restore its name.

"The last thing I would have done is put on a PR stunt," Staley said.

She said the conference was intended to be "substantive and educational and awareness-raising."

Attendees from 27 states include police officers, preschool teachers and child sex abuse experts as well as people who may not deal with the issue on a regular basis.

Staley said the topic made people very uncomfortable and reluctant to talk about it.

"One of the things this conference is trying to do is end that silence," she said.

Another speaker at the event is swimmer Margaret Hoelzer, a two-time Olympian who won two silver medals and a bronze in 2008. She was the victim of abuse by a friend's father when she was 5 years old.

"This is certainly not something that anyone needs to go through alone," Hoelzer said. "Keep talking and keep talking until you find someone that believes you."

She added that victims could become victors, "whether that's as a CEO or an Olympian or in a happy relationship."

"You can be successful. Horrible things happen in life, but you can overcome them and be successful," Hoelzer said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Ellen Wulfhorst and Peter Cooney)

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