The other day, a stranger shouted from two cars over in a convenience-store parking lot: "Did any of you guys know?" He asked it innocently enough, not maliciously, but the man had no idea how insulting the question was. That is where we are, though. You spend Christmas telling family and friends you were as shocked as everyone else, and then you shrug a lot.
Two or three people emailed, wondering when I was going to write a column about Conlin to compare with the ones I wrote about the Jerry Sandusky situation at Penn State. I did not answer them, even though I do have an answer. The Penn State issue was not centered on the allegations of evil, but the way the athletic program dealt with the allegations. Conlin's case is different, because there is no suggestion of a coverup and because his connection to sports is just the accident of his employment. That is the answer, but it would not satisfy a lot of people.Well, he's got the last part right.
First of all, the question asked by the stranger, despite Hofmann's sensitivity towards it, is a perfectly fair and reasonable question.
It is the sort of question journalists ask as a matter of routine when something awful happens. Some guy does something terrible and we go to his family, friends, and fellow employees -- in short, anyone who knew him, and ask "What was he like?" "Did this surprise you? "Did you have any suspicions he might do something like this."
Where's the insult? This is what we do. We ask questions. Why should we be surprised or insulted in being asked when we're the ones who happen to know - or at least be associated with - the person involved? And, of course, Hofmann can only speak for himself about what he "knows" about Conlin. He doesn't know what anybody else at the paper "knew" or suspected or heard rumors about.
As for the differences between the Conlin story and the Sandusky situation, Hofmann has a point. But only a small one. There was, after all, a cover-up in Conlin's case. It was engaged in, at the very least, by Conlin (if he is guilty), his alleged victims and their families.
Whether anyone at the Daily News or the Inquirer ever heard rumors of Conlin's alleged proclivity toward children, is still an open question. No one has come forward to say so. Most all of the allegations again him go back 30-40 years. My father and stepmom worked with Conlin decades ago. My dad's gone but I asked her about Conlin. She wasn't insulted.
As for the alleged "cover-up" at Penn State, that remains an allegation, not a proven fact. Two administrators are charged with lying to a grand jury and failing to report an incident that was reported to them. How it was reported to them - how it was described - remains very much a bone of contention. Personally, I'll be shocked if they are found guilty based on the word Mike "I did the right thing" McQueary.
But the sports media has hardly distinguished with it's lynch-mob approach to the scandal. These administrators knew Jerry Sandusky was a monster and they covered it up to protect the Penn State brand. That has been the working assumption of dozens, maybe hundreds, of column writers and journalists. Heads, including Joe Paterno's, were called for within hours of the release of the grand jury report. And they were delivered by a shocked and panic-stricken board of trustees. (Based on what I read, I too thought Paterno had to go. But the more times I read the grand jury report, the more questions I had about who was told what, when and by whom.)
I don't know Rich Hofmann but I remember meeting him once. If I remember it correctly it was at a going away party for a former Daily Times sports editor. He struck me as a good guy, a decent guy. And I think his column about Conlin is full of decency. And so was Bob Ford's column on the subject.
Ford knew Conlin better than Hofmann, but not, of course, about his alleged history of sticking his fingers in children.
As he wrote:
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.Well, certainly not everything. We all have our secrets. Some are darker than others. And some are so dark we barely admit them to ourselves.
Familiarity breeds contempt. But it also breeds compassion and decency and sadness when a friend is disgraced.
But a lot of the stuff written about the Penn State case hasn't been decent. A lot of it has been lousy with conclusion-jumping, bad-faith assumptions and sanctimony. Hofmann's stuff on the subject has been better and fairer than most. Still, he was part of the media herd that jumped to the same conclusions about Paterno's "guilt" and that of the other administration officials based on the word of Mike McQueary, a man whose credibility has since been thoroughly compromised.
If the allegations again Sandusky are true, he was an ongoing monster; a man who fed his sexual appetite for young boys by creating a charity to mentor - or rather to "groom" - them.
Conlin, on the other hand, if guilty, appears to have gone through a phase. When his access to children (mostly family members) diminished so did his crimes.
His alleged crimes are old, which makes this all the more tragic for him. He must've thought he'd outrun his demons only to have them catch up to him so late in life. Satchel Paige was right.
And so too, I bet, is Ford. The Conlin he knew wasn't the Conlin who violated those children. But still he had to live with the memory of that other self. It was a self he helped suppress with the persona of a bombastic "I'm-smarter-than-you" know-it-all. And thanks to the silence of others, he succeeded for years.
He didn't want to look back. But something was gaining on him.