Seminar looks at predator’s actions

Topics included how abusers manipulate children, families

JOHNSTOWN — An elderly man appeared Monday on a video screen inside the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s Living-Learning Center.

From his appearance, he seemed like a typical senior citizen, possibly a grandfather. But his words were far from ordinary. He spoke about how he manipulated children and their families to create opportunities for sexual assault.

“Not only did I groom my victims, I groomed their families,” the man said.

The video was part of a presentation by Veronique Valliere, a psychologist and sexual abuse expert.

She was in attendance at the annual Cambria County Sexual Assault Response Team conference, which, this year, was intended to give attendees the tools to identify and guard against offenders’ deceptive and manipulative behavior, SART coordinator Erika Brosig said.

“This year, we really shifted focus,” she said.

During the past five years, the annual SART conference has focused on supporting victims, Brosig said.

This year, conference organizers planned a day of programs and presentations to give those in attendance an insight into deceptive and manipulative behavior.

Those skills are especially important now, during a time when local leaders of the Catholic church and a prominent Cambria County pediatrician have been accused of sexually abusing children, Brosig said.

“The entire community was fooled by those folks,” she said. “They were deceived.”

Brosig said she and her colleagues are working to instill the belief that a person’s position of authority — such as doctor or priest — does not mean they must be trusted.

“That’s not keeping our kids safe,” she said.

Valliere, who testified as an expert in the sexual assault case against actor Bill Cosby, was one of two keynote speakers at the event.

She began her presentation by explaining that abusers often sexualize things that would not be considered arousing to a normal person. And she also stressed the importance of believing accusers.

“People still have the idea that it’s really easy for victims to cry rape,” she said, stressing that false accusations are rare.

Belief in accusations should also trump personal feelings about a possible offender, she said, giving Cosby as an example.

Valliere said some Cosby fans were so enamored by his years spent playing a loving family man on television that they were unwilling to even consider that he may be an abuser.

And she pointed out the traits in noncelebrity offenders, such as longtime positive relationships, that may produce the same result. In those cases, abusers often portray one “character in public, while hiding their private life,” she said.

She showed videos like the one of the elderly man to back her claim.

The abuse of children played largely into Monday’s event, but it was not the sole focus. Presenters also spoke at length about the assault of grown women, and even men, and the behaviors that make that abuse possible.

And they spoke to law enforcement officials, lawyers, case workers and medical professionals who made up the group of participants in attendance, Brosig said, explaining that attendees were visiting from Blair, Cambria, Somerset and Westmoreland counties, among others.

The annual conference is a big moneymaker for the local SART, which relies on funding for its day-to-day operations, aiding victims of abuse and their family members, Brosig said.

Last year, about 1,300 individuals received some type of help from the local agency, she said.

Brosig also offered assault statistics, revealing that one in four girls, one in six boys and one in three adult women have experienced some type of sexual

assault at some point in their lifetimes.

“The statistics are mind boggling,” she said, defining assault as “any type of sexual behavior that is unwanted.”

And the number of victims seeking help may be on the rise, as the ongoing “#MeToo” movement — which has empowered the outing of abusers, including famous celebrities — continues, Brosig said.

“The conversation is shifting right now in our society,” she said, explaining her agency is “all about support.”

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.