Inquirer investigative ace Nancy Phillips has been deluged with emails, voicemails, tweets and interview requests since breaking the story yesterday of allegations of child molestation against veteran Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin. After word of the piece leaked on deadspin.com yesterday, Philly.com posted the story at about 4:15 p.m. It ran today in the print editions.
“It’s insane,” Phillips said today, between frantic rounds of TV and radio interviews. “I’m looking at 257 unopened emails, and I answered more than a hundred last night. Clearly, this has struck a chord with readers.”
Conlin, 77, who resigned yesterday, had been a towering presence in Philadelphia for more than four decades and was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame earlier this year. He is alleged to have sexually abused as many as eight young girls and boys in the 1970s. He denies the allegations.
Phillips says she hasn’t experienced such intense reader response since 2000, when hit man Len Jenoff confessed to her that Cherry Hill Rabbi Fred Neulander had hired him to murder Neulander’s wife in 1994. Both are serving long prison terms.
“The Neulander story was solving a murder,” says Phillips. “… The reaction to this [Conlin] was really surprising to me. I just didn’t see it as a matter of such consequence, I hate to say. It’s a terrible thing to allege here, but he [Conlin] didn’t loom so large in my mind.”
Unlike some Phillips projects, the Conlin piece came together quickly, in about five weeks. Prompted by the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, Kelley Blanchet, a niece of Conlin’s and one of his alleged victims, confided her story to Amy Rosenberg, her friend and an Inquirer reporter. Since Rosenberg had a conflict of interest, she asked Blanchet if she could contact Phillips.
“It was pretty straight-forward reporting,” says Phillips. “I almost don’t consider it investigative. It wasn’t document intensive. I didn’t have to research deeds, mortgages. It was just talking to people, and going from there. It wasn’t that complicated. I wouldn’t put this among my top accomplishments as a reporter.”
When Phillips reached Conlin by phone in his Florida home yesterday, he hung up on her, she says. “That’s happened to me, unfortunately, many times. I’m not always reporting happy stories.” Later, via email, Conlin referred her to his attorney.
Phillips, 47, who joined the Inquirer in 1985, says she never met Conlin, but “obviously knew of him.” Truth be told, she’s not exactly a sports fan. “I use the sports section every day at lunch as a placemat, God forgive me,” she says.
Though Phillips says she reported the Conlin story as she would any other, she acknowledges it “was painful, to a degree. He’s someone in our orbit, a colleague. He’s part of this institution. But this was a compelling story that needed to be reported.”
Despite continuing cutbacks and layoffs at the Inquirer, Phillips insists that investigative reporting is not an endangered species at 400 N. Broad Street. “The leaders of this institution say it’s an important, valued part of the enterprise. I think we’re OK. I’m hoping to do this for years to come.”