Forget "Stranger Danger"

I'm a silver lining kind of gal. Ever since the media storm over allegations that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raped and molested children, I've been waiting to hear about many other such cases in the sports world. After all, that's what happened in 2002, when the Boston Globe first exposed that the local Catholic Church archdiocese had covered for dozens of area priests who had abused children. After the initial exposé, hundreds of victims who had endured similar abuse came forward around the country and across the world. With the tidal wave of Penn State news coverage, I expected a similar wave of coaches' victims to find the courage to tell their stories. The most reliable statistical estimates on the subject say that, two decades ago, one in four girls and one in six boys were sexually abused before they reached age 18. Given the priestly power of coaches—and their access to children—I assume that there are a lot more stories out there, and I'm on the side of knowledge: If there are more victims, their stories should be told, and their abusers held accountable.

We've already heard one such: serious and serial allegations against Bernie Fine, assistant coach in Syracuse's basketball program. One of Fine's accusers yesterday entered a guilty plea to his own child sex abuse charges in Maine.

But the latest story has a surprise twist: It's not about a coach at all, but a sportswriter accused of molesting children in his own family. Yesterday, Bill Conlin, longtime sports columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News, abruptly retired when the Philadelphia Inquirer published an in-depth investigation into allegations by two family members and two of his son's friends that Conlin had molested them in the 1970s. (Others, the story makes clear, were also molested, but do not want to revisit the past.) When the incidents first occured, all these children told their parents. But it was the 1970s; these things were handled privately. This was before the women's and children's rights movements declared sexual violation to be a public issue, a genuine crime that deserved and required prosecution. It was before people understood the dangers of the serial predator. The parents kept Conlin away from their children, and in the manner of the era, confronted Conlin. Here's how the Inquirer reports one such confrontation:

... 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....

The man said he never considered calling police, in part out of loyalty to Conlin's wife. "We didn't want to hurt her," he 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 ... Conlin family members who said they, too, had been molested.

I don't blame the family members; they did what people did about such things back then. They hadn't been barraged by a decade of news stories like these, which helped change cultural attitudes and informed us all about sexual abuse's prevalence and effects. The accusers say they came forward recently when, at Conlin's wife's funeral, they learned he has grandchildren—and wanted to protect them from becoming a new generation of victims. The Inquirer is almost certainly paying attention to this because of what recently exploded at Penn State.

To me, that's the silver lining: more openness, less shame, more knowledge, more justice, and more truth. It's a horrible story. But I'm glad it's being told. If it's true, Bill Conlin is the most common kind of child sexual abuser. Our laws focus on "stranger danger"—the creep on the corner, the pedophile at the youth center. But the great majority of victims are molested by a family member or an acquaintance—here, a friend's father.

Sex offender registries have their use, but they also have their weaknesses. Registries don't have magic powers to protect us. Stories like this can help remind us to watch out for Uncle Bill, the creep we already know.

You may also like