The Way of the World Before “To Catch a Predator”

When allegations of sex abuse were "quietly dealt with"

This holiday season has been a reminder that as sports have become all-encompassing in our lives—24-hour news, fantasy leagues, gossip websites—we’ve lost much of the escapism that following our favorite teams used to offer. Kicking back with a cheesesteak and some suds to watch a Phillies game used to be a break from the harsh realities of the world outside the lines. This week, though, if you went online to read Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin’s take on the Jimmy Rollins deal, there’s a good chance you were sidetracked—and blindsided—by a very different story. Four adults, including Conlin’s niece, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the award-winning baseball writer sexually molested them as children. Since that report ran, two more alleged victims have stepped forward. It’s damning, devastating stuff.

As is often the case with breaking sports news these days, Deadspin played a role in this tale—first in forcing the Inquirer’s hand by announcing the Conlin expose was imminent, and then by publishing a series of email exchanges between Conlin and former Deadspin editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio. In those messages, Conlin appears at times defiant, arrogant, desperate, delusional, even suicidal. What he never did, from what Daulerio revealed, was present a convincing argument for his innocence. Considering the statute of limitations for all of the claims against him has expired, Conlin and his accusers won’t have their day in court. So as we wait to hear Conlin’s side of this story, we’re left to sort through the rubble as the reputation of another sports figure, once admired, now lies in ruin.

I won’t pretend I know Conlin well. Over the years, I’ve checked in with him for insight on a few stories, and to his credit, he never big-timed me and always responded. Some long-time beat writers and columnists don’t warm up to magazine folks; they’re the ones in the trenches, watching meaningless midseason practices and elbowing each other in scrums to get a decent quote, while we swoop in from our glossy-cover perch for a 4,000-word feature and then disappear. When I wrote about the Phillies owners in 2008, Conlin emailed me at length with his thoughts, always written in that freewheeling style of his columns, full of detailed observations, asides and deadpan humor.

In light of the charges against him, speaking kindly of Conlin, even if only as a journalist, feels uncomfortable. But as we all ride the wave of outrage over his alleged crimes, another theme surfaced this week: Since many of these victims’ parents knew about Conlin’s behavior, why didn’t they call the police? Listen to talk radio or read the comments sections (if you can find them), and you’ll see some people think the parents are as culpable as Conlin himself. Just as I’m not Conlin’s best friend, I’m also not an expert on child sexual abuse, but I have written a number of stories about the subject. What’s certain about Conlin’s victims is that the molestation and rape they describe took place decades ago, long before Megan’s Law and To Catch A Predator and searchable sex-offender databases on the Internet. Matters like these were handled quietly, and many thought that the mere threat of going public—or of an old-school ass-whipping—would be enough motivation for a pedophile to simply stop abusing kids. Now we know differently.

Conlin’s accusers say they hope their story will prompt lawmakers to revisit the statute of limitations restrictions on sex crimes. As the child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church came to light, the convenient excuse from a number of politicians—including some in Harrisburg, namely State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone—was that expanding victims’ rights was akin to Catholic bashing. Today, though, with the shadows cast over the sports world by this horrible trifecta—Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, Syracuse’s Bernie Fine, and now Bill Conlin—the conversation has expanded into the secular domain. Our other halls of worship—arenas and stadiums and ballparks—can also serve as cover for a depraved mind. Father Tom Doyle, one of the world’s leading advocates for victims of the Catholic abuse scandal, called sex crimes against children “soul murder.” He’s right—and like physical murder, these acts against minors shouldn’t be bound by statutes of limitations. Now that it’s clear this isn’t a problem specific to priests, maybe sex-abuse victims will finally get the support from the justice system that they deserve. If that means more reality and less escapism while we watch ESPN—or read an old column from a sportswriter we once admired—it’s a trade-off that’s well worthwhile.