‘Tremendously under-reported’: Sexual assault takes spotlight as leaders push awareness

District Attorney Bernie Cantorna wants abuse victims and survivors to know help is available

Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna speaks during a discussion about Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month on April 1, 2019.
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Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna speaks during a discussion about Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month on April 1, 2019.

Nearly 500 survivors of sexual assault went to Centre Safe last year, more than double what the State College-based nonprofit saw five or 10 years ago, Executive Director Anne Ard said Monday.

Still, the crime remains “tremendously under-reported,” Ard said as community leaders marked the start of the national Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

“Sometimes we think that greater numbers mean that there are more victims or survivors. But I think what’s really happening is that when people begin to believe that they will be heard, that they will be believed, that somebody is going to help — that’s when they start to come forward,” she said at the Ramada Hotel along South Atherton Street. “And I think that’s exactly what’s happening.”

Ard was among roughly 15 leaders who gathered at the hotel to raise awareness about sexual violence and child abuse — both of which remain widespread, said Dawn McKee, special projects coordinator at Centre Safe. The group used to be known as the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

The county commissioners have designated April locally as Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“Centre County has been on the forefront to reduce sexual violence and sexual assault and also child abuse, as well,” said Michael Pipe, the commissioners board chairman. “It’s always been a county that will work to protect those who are victimized and prepare them so they can live beautiful lives in the future.”

More than 7,400 adults have participated in anti-abuse training developed by the YMCA of Centre County after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal in 2011, said Jamie SanFilippo, community outreach director at the Y. The free, two-hour training is an interactive workshop that centers on minimizing opportunities for sexual abuse.

Eighteen trainings are scheduled through the rest of 2019, including five at the county Youth Service Bureau.

“Although the topics of child abuse and neglect and sexual assault are heavy ones, I’m really fueled by the knowledge that we have these great partnerships in the community to be able to work together toward solutions,” bureau CEO Christine Bishop said. “The truth is, it really does take a village to raise children well.”

Christine Bishop, chief executive officer for the Centre County Youth and Service Bureau, chats with others after a discussion for sexual assault awareness month and child abuse prevention month at the Ramada Inn on Monday, April 1, 2019. Abby Drey

Other local and state resources aimed at preventing and responding to abuse include the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the National Sexual Violence Hotline, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the YMCA’s Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children training.

The county Office of Children and Youth Services offers a yearly workshop on child abuse and mandated reporting, liaison Mary Ann Zimmerman said. This year’s free event is scheduled for 9 a.m. April 9 at the Assembly of God Church in State College.

Ard lauded the efforts across the county, saying they’re not mirrored anywhere in the state.

“If a tragedy occurs ... the best place you can be is in Centre County because the best response you can get is here,” Ard said.

Bernie Cantorna, the county district attorney, said that “we’re doomed to repeat history again and again and again” if community members do not intervene as soon as possible. He urged anyone affected by sexual violence or child abuse to speak up and share that story.

“There is a team of individuals and organizations who are ready to hear your stories,” Cantorna said. “If we don’t do that in a case at the front end, then we’re almost guaranteed to see the families and their children again in the legal system.”

Penn State’s Gender Equity Center has several events planned throughout the month, including a keynote speech from Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino, an advocate in the national movement known as “#MeToo.” Sorvino, who has said she was sexually harassed by former movie executive Harvey Weinstein, is set to speak at 6:30 p.m. April 10 at the HUB-Robeson Center.

Weinstein has denied allegations of sexual misconduct brought by dozens of women.

Other scheduled events at Penn State include a gathering to honor survivors, a “What were you wearing?” art installation and a men- against-violence walk.

Programming coordinator Jennifer Pencek said the #MeToo movement generated more public conversations and awareness about sexual assault, but that she believes more efforts are needed to take action. That includes the university’s “three Ds” program — direct, distract and delegate, she said.

“Finding these pockets of opportunity for people to get more engaged is really what we’re trying to address,” Pencek said. “It’s not going to be the same for each person, but it is important for people to actually start thinking about.”

She said #MeToo has been “empowering” because it’s forced individuals to think about sexual assault. Everyone knows someone who’s been sexually assaulted, even if that assault remains a secret, Pencek said.

Each survivor finds a different path — some sharing their stories, others staying more quiet, she said.

“Whether it’s someone putting the hashtag #MeToo on their social media or someone not comfortable doing that, (just) making the choice each day that they’re going to survive that day, I think that’s really big,” Pencek said.

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Bret Pallotto primarily reports on courts and crime for the Centre Daily Times. He grew up in Lewistown and graduated from Lock Haven University.