PHILADELPHIA — Three women and a man say they were molested as children by Bill Conlin, a Hall of Fame baseball writer and Philadelphia Daily News columnist.
In vivid accounts, the four say Conlin groped and fondled them, and touched their genitals, in assaults in the 1970s, when they were from 7 to 12 years old.
"This is a tragedy," said Kelley Blanchet, a niece of Conlin's who said he molested her when she was a child. "People have kept his secret. It's not just the victims, it's the victims' families. There were so many people who knew about this and did nothing."
Conlin retired Tuesday from the Daily News, where he had worked for more than four decades. His columns have moved on the McClatchy-Tribune News Service sports wire.
Through his lawyer, George Bochetto, Conlin declined to comment.
"Mr. Conlin is obviously floored by these accusations, which supposedly happened 40 years ago," Bochetto said. "He has engaged me to do everything possible to bring the facts forward to vindicate his name."
Blanchet, now a prosecutor in Atlantic City, N.J., and the others said they were speaking out now because the alleged sexual assaults and cover-up at Penn State brought back painful memories, and reminded them of the secrecy that shrouded their own assaults.
They also said they wanted to bring attention to the shortcomings of the statute of limitations on sex crimes, which bars prosecution in their cases because their parents did not call police when the abuse occurred years ago. In several cases, the parents corroborated the accounts, and one _ Conlin's brother-in-law _ described how the writer broke down in tears and insisted he had only touched the girl's leg.
Prosecutors in Gloucester County, N.J., who took videotaped statements from the four last year say there is nothing they can do because assaults that occurred before 1996 fall under the statute of limitations.
"We would love to see justice in this case," Detective Stacie Lick of the Prosecutor's Office wrote in an email to one of the women last month. "So many people have been victimized by this man, but our hands are tied by the law, which does not let us prosecute."
Conlin, 77, was the recipient of the 2011 J.G. Taylor Spink Award, named for a publisher of the Sporting News and presented at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. That put him in the company of such celebrated writers as Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Damon Runyan, and Red Smith, and Conlin is honored in the hall's "Scribes and Mikemen" exhibit.
"I can't even begin to express the shock, sadness, and outrage I feel by what Bill Conlin is alleged to have done," said Daily News editor Larry Platt, who immediately accepted Conlin's offer to retire.
Conlin joined the Daily News in 1965 and was its Phillies beat writer from 1966 until 1987, when he became a columnist. He gained a national profile as a commentator on the ESPN program The Sports Reporters. He is the author of two baseball-related books, the Rutledge Book of Baseball and Batting Cleanup, Bill Conlin.
In a recent column, "Tough Guys Are Talking About Sandusky," Conlin questioned people who said they would have intervened had they seen Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant coach, abusing a child: "Everybody says he will do the right thing, get involved, put his own ass on the line before or after the fact. But the moment itself has a cruel way of suspending our fearless intentions."
Blanchet and the others who say they were molested by Conlin told their parents about the abuse decades ago, but no one contacted law enforcement, settling for stern warnings to Conlin and a decision to shield the children from further contact with him.
"I'm really sorry that I didn't do something more at the time," said Barbara Healey, whose son and daughter told her that Conlin molested them in the 1970s. "Call the police is what I should have done."
In Blanchet's case, her father angrily confronted Conlin after his wife told him that Conlin had molested their daughter when she was about 7. Blanchet's parents were out of town for the day, and Conlin was visiting her family's house in Margate, N.J. When her brother went outside to play football, Blanchet said, Conlin assaulted her.
"I was numb," she said, recalling that he put his hand between her legs and touched her genitals, and penetrated her with his fingers, stopping only when her brother, Ted, walked in. Her brother, now deceased, told her mother, who told her father.
"I was going to kill him, I was so furious," recalled Blanchet's father, Harry Hasson, now 75. He said he called Conlin in the Daily News newsroom and summoned him to Margate.
"He swore to me that he just touched her leg. Then all of a sudden, he started crying," Hasson recalled. "He said, 'I swear to God, I just touched her leg.'"
Hasson said he did not learn the full extent of the assault until about two years ago, when his daughter spoke to him about it in a therapy session.
"For somebody to do that _ the son of a bitch," Hasson said, starting to choke up. "That's probably the worst thing you can do to somebody. Back then, I would never even think that anyone could ever do what she said he did."
When he confronted Conlin and he started to sob, Hasson said, "it was such a pitiful sight. It took the fight out of me. I wish now I had done something more, but he swore to me and I believed him.
Even so, Hasson said, he kept his daughter away from her uncle after that. "I said, 'Never come back to Margate. Never touch her again.' "
Blanchet, now 47 and a mother of two, said she rarely saw her uncle or his family for the next three decades.
But when Conlin's wife, Irma, died in 2009, Blanchet decided to attend the funeral. Conlin gave the eulogy and made reference to the couple's grandchildren. Blanchet, who did not know her uncle had grandchildren, said she began to worry about the children's safety, and decided to tell some of her relatives what her uncle had done to her.
She said she told a female relative, who in turn confided that Conlin had abused her for years when she was a child. The relative, she said, told her that this led to a long estrangement that ended only after he wrote her a 10-page letter of apology.
The relative said Conlin had also abused her brother, Blanchet said. And she said her relative told her that Conlin had assaulted three girls who were friends of his children when they were growing up in the Whitman Square section of Washington Township, Gloucester County.
That's how Blanchet met Karen Healey and two other women who say they were molested by Conlin, along with Healey's brother, Kevin.
Kevin Healey was a close friend of Conlin's son Billy. One summer night when he was about 12, Healey said, he went to the Conlin house to watch a Phillies game and slept over in the living room. Conlin was covering the game for the Daily News.
Healey said he awakened in the middle of the night to find Conlin fondling his genitals and leaning toward his body with his mouth.
"I ran out of there like a bat out of hell," said Healey, now 48 and a construction worker and painter who lives in Williamstown. "I left my sneakers, my socks and my shirt," and ran home.
"I came flying in the door," he recalled, which awakened his mother.
Barbara Healey remembers it well.
"Kevin just came into the room crying. It was unusual to see a boy crying," she said. "He told me Mr. Conlin molested him."
She told her son not to tell his father _ "his father had a terrible temper," she said _ and forbade him to return to the Conlin home.
But she continued to allow her daughter Karen to spend time with Conlin's younger son, Peter. "I thought he was just interested in boys," she said of Conlin.
A few years later, Barbara Healey said, she was shocked to learn that her daughter had been molested as well.
She recalled the day that Karen and a friend, then both about 10, told her Conlin had repeatedly molested them. The friend was in tears, Healey said, as she described how Conlin had assaulted her that day.
The friend, now 44, said in an interview that she would never forget that day. She had gone to the Conlin home to visit Peter. The boy was not home, and while she was waiting for him in the den, she said, Conlin came into the room.
(The Inquirer is withholding the woman's name in keeping with its policy of not identifying people who say they have been sexually assaulted. The other women and the man gave the newspaper permission to use their names.)
The memory, the woman said, is frozen in her mind. It was a summer day, and she recalled that she was wearing a yellow shirt and light blue shorts when Conlin put his arms around her, and then reached into her pants and put his fingers inside her.
"He just started fondling me and said, 'Does it feel good?' " she said. "He said, 'This is our secret.' "
It was not the first time Conlin had molested her, said the woman. But, following his warning about keeping it secret, she had told no one.
On this day, as she left the house and saw her friend Karen outside, the woman recalled, she burst into tears and the story spilled out. Karen said they should tell their mothers, she said, which is how they ended up on Barbara Healey's porch, telling the secret.
Healey remembered that her daughter's friend was crying when she came to the house and told her what had happened. Healey said her daughter told her that Conlin had molested her as well and that he had assaulted another girl who lived on the same block of Whitman School Road.
"I said, 'You just can't go near that family, and you can't go in that house,' " Healey recalled.
She then called the other girls' mothers, and the three women decided that one of their husbands would confront Conlin. They decided not to tell the other two husbands, fearing that in their anger they might harm Conlin.
In a brief telephone interview, the man who spoke to Conlin about the abuse said he would "rather not talk about it." The Inquirer is withholding the man's name to protect the identity of his daughter, who declined to comment for this story.
The man confirmed that the three women told him Conlin had molested the girls, and he said he called Conlin to tell him that he knew.
"I just called him and made him aware that this story had been told by the kids and I said it was wrong, and I really let it go at that," the man recalled. "He didn't admit anything or say anything much. He just acknowledged what I said, and that was it."
The man said he never considered calling police, in part out of loyalty to Conlin's wife. "We didn't want to hurt her," her said.
Looking back, Karen Healey said she was astounded that the parents and others reacted as they did.
"Nobody called the cops," said Healey, now 44, a mother of three, and a corporate sales executive. "Everyone went back to living their lives.
"It's never talked about. None of the kids are offered therapy. We all go on with our lives," she said.
In retrospect, Barbara Healey said, she and the other mothers should have done more: "I decided the wrong thing."
Not until more than 30 years later, after Irma Conlin's funeral, did Healey, her brother, and their childhood friends learn about Blanchet and the other Conlin family members who said they too had been molested.
Blanchet, a prosecutor, suggested that they go to law enforcement. Two of her relatives demurred.
"I honestly do not want to be involved with whatever you guys are going to do," one female relative wrote to Blanchet in a Facebook message last year. "I don't even think about my past anymore. It is behind me. My family and I are done with it.
She said Blanchet's renewed focus on the assaults was "interfering with the peace and life I built for me and my family.. . . I am hurting now, so no more updates."
One of the girls from Whitman School Road also declined to participate, in part, she said, to protect her elderly parents.
"I feel that they have done their part in honoring the wishes of the rest of the families involved by keeping the secret away from the other spouses for whatever the reasons may have been," she wrote in an email to Blanchet, Healey, and her other childhood friend. "The decisions made many years ago were the consensus of the families involved and took into consideration the effects on all, including the Conlin family.
"In today's world, things might have been handled differently, but that's hindsight, and we are willing to live with it," the woman wrote.
Last year, Blanchet, Kevin Healey, Karen Healey, and another woman from the neighborhood gave prosecutors videotaped testimony about the abuse they said they suffered at Conlin's hands years ago. New Jersey's current law has no statute of limitations on sex crimes, so they were hopeful that Conlin might finally be held to account, Blanchet said.
But the law in place today, enacted in 1996, is not retroactive. "I didn't realize it, and I'm a prosecutor," she said.
At the time of the alleged assaults, New Jersey law required that victims notify law enforcement within five years of an incident for a case to be prosecuted. So Gloucester County prosecutors told them there was nothing they could do.
"I am sorry that the system seems to be failing you," wrote Lick, an investigator for the Prosecutor's Office, in an e-mail to Blanchet and Healey. "However, the law has tied our hands, in that the statute of limitations has run."
A spokesman for Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean F. Dalton said he would have no comment on the investigation. However, he said the office welcomed complaints from victims and would investigate any allegations brought to its attention.
While Blanchet and the others said they were disappointed that no criminal charges could be brought, they said they hoped that by telling their story, they might embolden victims who may be reluctant to speak out. And they hope that parents of victims might take a lesson from the missteps of their parents, who did not turn to law enforcement.
By the time Blanchet and the others went to prosecutors themselves, "nothing could be done because of the stupid statute of limitations," said Kevin Healey. "We wanted justice."
(Phillips is a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer)