Yesterday at 1:40 p.m., a colleague rushed into my office to share the awful news: The Inquirer was about to print child molestation allegations against Daily News sportswriter Bill Conlin. Deadspin had the scoop. The local Twitter community exploded. Bloggers and news organizations (including this one) raced to further the story. And within a matter of two hours, Conlin seemed to plummet from legendary award-winning sports journalist to dirty old man in the eyes of many.
And that was before the Inquirer even ran its story.
But here’s the thing. The last time I checked, we still enjoy an ancient concept known as the presumption of innocence.
Oh, I know. You’re well aware of this concept: that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, that the accused has no obligation to produce evidence, that the accused has no obligation to make an argument or say anything, for that matter, and that the government has the obligation to prove guilt—beyond a reasonable doubt—and to get 12 people to agree to it, too. You “know it” like you read about it in school. But you sure are quick to forget about it in cases like this.
When it comes to crimes that aren’t of a sexually deviant nature, we’re usually willing to give people the benefit of the doubt and let them have their day in court. But with allegations of sexual abuse against children, well, we’re pretty quick to play the castration card. Perhaps it’s just because we don’t want to think about the acts, we don’t want to hear all the disgusting details, we don’t want to consider the evidence. It’s much easier to just imagine what we’d do to the person if we had five minutes alone in a room with him. We go to a primal, vengeful place.
Let’s be truthful: We don’t know what happened 40 years ago between Conlin and his niece. Sure, she’s a prosecutor. And sure there are other allegations. But so what? Allegedly is a word that we journalists use constantly when writing about crime. We argue with our editors and lawyers about how the repeated use of it makes a piece unreadable. Sometimes, to be clever, we put it in parentheses when we blog.
Of course, while Jerry Sandusky is going to have his day in court, Conlin never will, at least not criminally. Another ancient legal concept: statute of limitations. Because the accusers waited so long to tell their story publicly, Conlin can’t be prosecuted. And that’s a real crime. Conlin should have a chance to clear his name. And his (alleged) victims should have a chance at justice.