When they arrive at the Centre County Courthouse, the young men testifying against Jerry Sandusky will be whisked to the entrance through an enclosed canopy. The temporary structure, built over the weekend, was designed to shield the accusers - key prosecution witnesses in Sandusky's child sex abuse case - from photographers and spectators waiting outside.

There are no such protections inside the courtroom, where the witness stand and the defense table are separated by about 12 feet.

For the first time in a legal process that began three years ago with closed-door police interviews and secret grand jury testimony, Sandusky's accusers will be in the same room as their alleged tormentor.

At the same time, the young men, who range in age from 17 to 27, will face the pressure of revealing their darkest moments to an audience of strangers, including the judge, jury, attorneys, reporters and court personnel.

Attorneys, psychologists and victim advocates said testifying in open court - a nerve-racking experience for most witnesses - can be especially daunting for child abuse victims, who often work at healing at varying paces and might not be ready to share their stories just because a court schedule says they must.

Tammy Lerner, the state director of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said some of the accusers in the Sandusky case could feel liberated seeing him while helping in his prosecution. For others, the sight of the former Penn State defensive coordinator could provoke bad memories and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

"No victim should be put in a situation where they have to retell the story of how they were victimized, and the details of that, which are incredibly difficult to verbalize even to one's self," Lerner said. "To do that in front of the person that violated you is probably the most difficult thing those young people will face in their life."

Also, for the first time in this legal process, the accusers will face questioning from Sandusky's attorneys.

Dr. John Giugliano, an associate professor of social work at Widener University in Chester, said he expected defense attorneys Joseph Amendola and Karl Rominger to attempt to "trip up" the accusers on key details with the goal of undermining their credibility and casting doubt on the validity of their allegations.

"In some tragic way, these guys are on trial," Giugliano said. "The absolute truth is, they're telling their story and they don't know if they're going to be believed or not and they're opening themselves up for public scrutiny. That's pretty intimidating. They have to disclose about the most horrific episode of their life."

The credibility of accusers is crucial to child sex abuse cases, where investigators rarely find physical evidence or independent witnesses to corroborate the allegations.

Luzerne County prosecutor Jenny Roberts said she evaluates several other factors when substantiating a child sex abuse allegation, including:

n Other facts surrounding the incidents that can be corroborated.

n Determining if the complainant is describing sexual acts and body parts that, at their age, they would not be familiar with unless abuse occurred. n How much detail they remember of the alleged incident, including what they saw, and felt, as well as their descriptions of the alleged perpetrator.

n An accuser's level of consistency when repeating the allegations. n Whether or not the complainant had a credible reason to fabricate the allegations.

"Although we look for physical, medical and scientific evidence, it rarely exists in child sexual abuse cases because there is normally always a delay in reporting," Roberts said. Delays in alerting the authorities, she said, "can be caused by several things, including fear of the perpetrator or fear that they will not be believed."

In the Sandusky case, two people said they witnessed what appeared to be Sandusky sexually assaulting young boys in a Penn State locker facility, but the boys involved in those incidents were not among the six or more who testified before a grand jury.

The accounts of both eyewitnesses are flawed, making the accusers' testimony all the more important to the prosecution case.

In one eyewitness account, a janitor told a supervisor he saw Sandusky and a boy between 11 and 13 in the shower one night during the 2000 football season. The janitor never reported the incident to police and, according to prosecutors, now has dementia.

In the other, former Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary said he saw what appeared to be Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a team shower. Prosecutors said the incident happened March 1, 2002 but later changed the date to Feb. 9, 2001.

McQueary said he went immediately home and discussed what he saw with his father, who told him to alert former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno the next morning.

McQueary, one expert said, had a similar reaction to witnessing the alleged abuse that a victim of abuse might have when testifying or confronting his or her abuser.

"He goes home that night and speaks to his father," Abbie Newman, the executive director of the Montgomery County advocacy center Mission Kids, said. "That sounds to me, in his own mind, McQueary reverted to being a child and didn't know what to do. His father told him to do the right thing."

Regardless of the outcome in Sandusky's case, Newman said, his accusers are doing the right thing by testifying.

msisak@citizensvoice.com, 570-821-2061, @cvmikesisak