Bob Ford: Allegations portray a Conlin that fellow columnist never knew

Posted: December 22, 2011

I don't know the Bill Conlin who was described in The Inquirer as an alleged serial molester of young children, but I know too much now about the crime and the secrecy that goes along with it to disbelieve with any certainty he exists.

I never met that man, but I have known for 30 years the bombastic, funny, ridiculously talented Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter who I thought was Bill Conlin. I have worked with him, traveled with him, drunk with him, played tennis with him, and stood under a thousand spring training suns talking mostly about baseball but eventually about everything else. Everything but this.

The detailed story that has been told by three women and a man about Conlin, a story that indicates alleged crimes against as many as eight children in the 1970s, was reported and written by Nancy Phillips of The Inquirer, who is merely one of the most reliable in our business. You can read the article a dozen times, as I have, and there are no discernible holes in the story. Since it was published, another woman has come forward to add her name to the list of alleged victims. The original story was corroborated, painfully, by some of the adults who were aware of the alleged crimes, and it comes at a time, long after the fact, when the motivation for coming forward is difficult to question.

Three of the accusers have retained a law firm but said they will not be seeking a civil judgment against Conlin. Getting one to stick without the aid of a criminal trial would be a long shot, anyway. They came forward, according to Kelley Blanchet, Conlin's niece and one of the alleged victims, to finally rid themselves of the secrecy and to perhaps encourage a change in the statute of limitations on sexual crimes.

The recent molestation allegations against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky brought back all the painful memories, according to Blanchet. If there was also a search for vindication among the alleged victims, bringing down the reputation of a celebrated 77-year-old man living in comfortable semiretirement in Florida, maybe they deserved that satisfaction, too.

I don't know because, unlike the Penn State situation, this one won't be sorted out by the judicial system. Very much like the Penn State situation, however, it is a reminder not to build statues to the living.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, which somehow still believes that journalists should make the news, not just report it, will announce the newest elected members to baseball's Hall of Fame early next month. Conlin was honored by the BBWAA with the 2011 J.G. Taylor Spink Award for journalistic achievement and delivered his acceptance speech at the annual induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., complaining, quite in character, that they made him cut it.

When the allegations against Conlin became public, Jack O'Connell, the BBWAA secretary/treasurer, issued this statement: "Bill Conlin has been a member in good standing of the BBWAA since 1966. The allegations have no bearing on his winning the 2011 J.G. Taylor Spink Award, which was in recognition of his notable career as a baseball writer."

It took less than a day for the BBWAA elite to recognize what insensitive morons they sounded like - a land-speed record for that group - and organization president Bill Shaikin issued another statement Wednesday: "We were shocked and saddened to learn of the allegations involving Bill Conlin and we extend our sympathies to everyone involved. This is a matter far more serious than baseball and, at this point, a matter best left to the proper authorities."

Still not the proper message, but at least the writing is getting better.

The message is that it is only about the victims in matters such as this. These are nothing but allegations against Conlin right now, and he might choose to fight them publicly. In the absence of a formal opportunity to clear his name, the court will be that of public opinion. If he has evidence as to why the accusers would make up this story, he should bring it forward. Otherwise, we will read what we have, and it does not read well.

But if, because of this and the Penn State situation and Syracuse assistant Bernie Fine and whatever else is out there now, if one kid comes forward to stop a predator because it doesn't seem so dark and daunting any longer, then all the pain that the Penn State community has gone through, and all the pain that Conlin's friends and colleagues in the Philadelphia and national media are going through, will be worth it a hundred times over. Just one kid. Just one fewer victim. Just one potential molestation that doesn't take place.

There has to be less darkness and more light. When the news of the allegations against Conlin broke, I began receiving e-mails from Penn State fans who wanted to know, well, where is your moral outrage now? You went after Penn State, but what about the jointly owned Inquirer and Daily News?

Here is your outrage, although even subjective fans have to understand the situations are the same only because children were allegedly hurt. That is what is important, and nothing can make that better or worse. It is only unspeakable.

What you do, however, when you hear about these things is what matters most. In our building, we investigated it and told the world about it even though the accusations were directed at one of our own. I think the same thing would have happened if the story broke in 1970, 1980, or 1990. That's what we do, and if Penn State had been as open and direct in dealing with Sandusky's behavior, starting at least in 1998, not as many children would have been hurt. That's the real outrage.

As I said, I don't know the Bill Conlin I have read about this week. I know another man, someone who has been my friend a very long time. As we approach the end of this sad year, visiting too often with the winter of the human soul, it seems that we really know only ourselves and no one else.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns, recent columns at www.philly.com/bobford.

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