STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Rescued kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart said Tuesday that Penn State's inaugural conference on child sexual abuse is a way to promote discussion about crimes that drew more attention after the molestation scandal involving former university assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Smart, after recounting her sexual abuse by a kidnapper during months of captivity at age 14 starting in 2002, called the conference an "incredible opportunity to not only change the community but change the nation ... to change how we do things, how we look at victims and how we work around them."
Smart was the keynote speaker on Tuesday, the final day of the three-day conference on child sexual abuse's impact and prevention, held nearly a year after Sandusky's arrest last Nov. 5 on charges he abused several boys plunged the university into turmoil.
University leaders have pledged that the university will become a leader in issues of child abuse prevention, research and treatment. The conference was sold out, with 500 registered attendees, but about 70 people didn't show up with the superstorm wreaking havoc on East Coast travel.
The university plans to hold the conference annually, president Rodney Erickson said in thanking attendees.
Smart applauded everyone who fought the elements to attend "because you realize the conference can be the stage and turning point for how we treat future abuse, kidnappings and all sorts of heinous crimes against children."
Smart, of Salt Lake City, was kidnapped at knifepoint from her bedroom, was held for nine months and was raped repeatedly. The expansive search for her riveted the country, as did her improbable recovery while walking with her captor on a suburban street in March 2003.
A onetime itinerant street preacher was convicted of Smart's kidnapping and sexual assault and is serving a life prison sentence. Smart testified during his trial, calling her ordeal, which she said involved daily rapes and forced use of drugs and alcohol, "nine months of hell."
Since her rescue, Smart has become involved in advocacy work including the formation of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, which focuses on protecting and educating children from falling victim to violent and sexual crimes. She champions a program called radKIDS, which teaches children how to protect themselves from sexual predators.
The Associated Press doesn't normally publish the names of accusers or victims in sexual-assault cases unless they agree to be named or identify themselves publicly, as Smart has done.
Sandusky, 68, was arrested on charges he abused several boys at his home and on Penn State's campus. He was convicted of dozens of criminal counts and was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison but insists he's innocent.
Eight young men testified against him in June, describing a range of abuse they said included fondling and sex when they were boys.
Smart, asked what advice she could draw on from her own recovery to pass on to the accusers, told reporters at a news conference: "Life is never over. You can only live once. ... Never feel like because of someone else's actions, never feel like you're less than what you are."
A positive from the Sandusky abuse scandal is that the issue has gained national attention, she said.
"Maybe," she said, "it's starting to talk about what we can do to prevent it instead of picking up the pieces afterward."