Alleged Victims Emboldened By Penn State Scandal

It took 40 years for Bill Conlin to write his way into baseball's Hall of Fame — but just one newspaper story for his career to unravel. Conlin stepped down from his job at the Philadelphia Daily News this week, hours before its sister paper, the Inquirer, published a lengthy investigation into charges that Conlin had sexually abused children in the 1970s. The alleged victims say they were emboldened to come forward by the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State.

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In Pennsylvania, yet again, there are shocking accusations of sexual abuse implicating a public figure. This time, it's not someone who coaches a sports team. It's someone who writes about sports. Bill Conlin was a celebrated newspaper columnist in Philadelphia. He stepped down this week in the face of allegations that he abused children during the 1970s. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the alleged victims say they were encouraged to come forward by the scandal at Penn State.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It took hundreds of stories and columns over 45 years at the Philadelphia Daily News for Bill Conlin to write his way into baseball's Hall of Fame. Here's Conlin last summer accepting the highest award a baseball writer can win.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BILL CONLIN: Today, the Spink Award completes a staff grand slam and is the cherry on the sundae of my career.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

CONLIN: I'm out. Thanks to the Hall of Fame Committee and the...

ROSE: But it only took one newspaper story for Conlin's career to unravel. The 77-year-old retired this week just before the Philadelphia Inquirer published the results of a month long investigation. Three women and a man told the paper that Conlin fondled them and touched their genitals in a series of assaults during the 1970s when the accusers were between the ages of seven and 12.

Reporter Nancy Phillips spoke to the alleged victims and broke the story.

NANCY PHILLIPS: In the wake of the revelations at Penn State, reading about, hearing about all of that really brought back painful memories, they said. And they really felt that, by coming forward, they might be able to do a public service and allow other victims to maybe feel emboldened and able to come forward.

ROSE: Phillips corroborated their stories with parents of the alleged victims, who now wish they had gone to the police with their concerns in the first place. Attorney Slade McLaughlin represents three of the alleged victims.

SLADE MCLAUGHLIN: They tried to deal with it privately. They approached Mr. Conlin. They warned him to stay away from their kids. They kept their kids away from him after that and they simply didn't want the publicity surrounding a little seven-year-old girl or nine-year-old girl dealing with these types of issues.

ROSE: Bill Conlin's lawyer did not respond to interview requests for this story, though he did tell the Inquirer he'll do everything possible to, quote, "vindicate," unquote, Conlin's name.

Hours before the story was published, Conlin did speak to his boss, Daily News editor Larry Platt.

LARRY PLATT: He offered to retire right away and I immediately accepted. I felt that this story was so damning that I would not be comfortable ever working with Bill Conlin again.

ROSE: The Daily News and the Inquirer share an owner and a building. Ordinarily, the papers compete for stories and for readers. In this case, Platt made the unusual decision to print the Inquirer story word for word in the Daily News, as well.

For his part, the executive editor of the Inquirer, Stan Wischnowski, says his paper handled the Conlin story the same way it would any serious allegations of child sexual abuse.

STAN WISCHNOWSKI: You know, the bar to publish in this circumstance is very high. You know, we've been through this. We get these calls a lot. We vet them, we check them out and some of them meet the bar and some don't. To me, this clearly had made the bar.

ROSE: Prosecutors in New Jersey, where the alleged crimes took place, also investigated Conlin, but concluded that the statute of limitations prevented them from filing charges. In fact, Conlin has not been charged at all, a point he made himself in an exchange of emails with a reporter at the sports website DeadSpin.com earlier this week.

Conlin never denies the allegations against him, though he does bemoan that his good name can be sullied without any legal protections. But Daily News editor Larry Platt says that's not the real issue.

PLATT: The presumption of innocence is a judicial term. There is also the court of public opinion where the presumption of innocence does not necessarily apply. What applies to us journalistically is the demand to be fair. I don't think it is possible to read that story and say that that was at all unfair.

ROSE: At least two more women have come forward with similar allegations against Bill Conlin and the story may still be far from over.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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