The International Tennis Hall of Fame, reversing course after months of inaction, is investigating allegations that Bob Hewitt, one of the greatest doubles players in the history of the sport, sexually abused nearly a dozen girls he coached in South Africa and the United States from the 1970s to 1990s, according to several of the alleged victims.
The Hall of Fame launched the inquiry after drawing criticism throughout the tennis community for dropping its plan last year to investigate the scandal. The organization has hired a Boston law firm — Hinckley, Allen & Snyder — to conduct the investigation and present its findings before the hall’s board of directors meet later this month in Newport, R.I.
The law firm was commissioned “to submit a confidential report to the executive committee to assist in deciding whether to suspend or take other action against Mr. Hewitt’s status as a Tennis Hall of Fame’’ member, according to an e-mail sent from the firm’s attorney, Michael J. Connolly, to one of the women Hewitt allegedly abused in South Africa. A copy of the e-mail was provided to the Globe.
The inquiry was welcomed as long overdue by Hewitt’s alleged victims, five of whom called last year for his removal from the hall after a Globe story detailed his history of alleged sexual misconduct.
“This is half our battle won,’’ said Suellen Sheehan, who was 12 when, she said, Hewitt first had sex with her in South Africa.
The statute of limitations has expired on most of the allegations in the United States, but not in South Africa, where the National Prosecuting Authority is investigating Hewitt.
“For him, the abuse might have ended with his tennis career,’’ said Heather Crowe Conner, who had just turned 15 in 1976 when, she said, Hewitt, a former Boston Lobsters star, first had sex with her outside Masconomet Regional High School. “For the rest of us, the impact of that abuse continues to play itself out in our lives every day.’’
Hewitt, 72, who lives in rural Addo, South Africa, has not been charged with a crime. He has not spoken publicly about the case since last year, when he told the Globe, “I just want to forget about it,’’ and was quoted by the Weekend Post in South Africa as saying, “I only want to apologize if I offended anyone in any way.’’
Crowe Conner, now a teacher at Reading Memorial High School, said she has renewed hope that Hewitt one day will answer for the pain he allegedly caused her and the other women. She said she recently spoke at length with Connolly, a former federal prosecutor, about her allegations.
Connolly declined to comment, as did the hall, whose senior officials are attending the Wimbledon tournament in London and “are not readily accessible,’’ according to spokeswoman Anne Marie McLaughlin.
The hall’s executive director, Mark Stenning, said in May that the organization dropped its plan to investigate Hewitt in favor of drafting a policy to address similar issues in the future.
The decision triggered a backlash against the organization, as several prominent tennis figures voiced their support for the alleged victims. Among those who have spoken out is Billie Jean King, an inductee and life trustee of the hall.
In 1970, King partnered with Hewitt to win the mixed doubles title at the French Open.
“I’m not happy,’’ she recently told the Washingtonian magazine in her first public comments about the allegations. “I am very upset, and he needs to be in jail. If he’s guilty, which it looks like he is, he should be on trial. Of course, he’s innocent until proven guilty.’’
Child advocates in the United States and South Africa who have worked with Hewitt’s alleged victims were heartened by the inquiry.
“We applaud the Hall of Fame for acknowledging their responsibility to pursue the truth in this matter and give these women a fair opportunity to have their voices heard,’’ said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, which campaigns against child sexual abuse. “This is an encouraging sign that youth-serving organizations are taking to heart lessons learned from the Catholic Church and Penn State scandals.’’
While hundreds of supporters of Hewitt’s alleged victims have petitioned the hall to remove him, Massachusetts Citizens for Children and its South African counterpart, Men & Women Against Abuse, have been considering joint efforts to pressure the hall to oust him, including picketing the organization’s induction ceremony July 14.
But news of the inquiry prompted them to suspend their protest plans. Instead, the advocates said, they will wait for the law firm to present its report and the hall to respond.
The hall’s earlier backpedaling posed a striking contrast to the US Gymastics Hall of Fame’s swift expulsion last year of an inductee facing similar allegations of sexually abusing girls he was coaching. Hewitt’s alleged victims and their supporters viewed the tennis hall’s inaction as emblematic of leaders throughout professional tennis distancing themselves from the scandal.
In South Africa, where tennis officials have shown little interest in investigating Hewitt, advocates for the alleged victims said the hall’s inquiry has raised hopes that South African prosecutors will soon will file charges against Hewitt.
“We trust our criminal justice system will provide an opportunity for the truth to emerge,’’ said Luke Lamprecht, a spokesman for the Men & Women Against Abuse.
Sheehan, who was the first of Hewitt’s alleged victims in South Africa to seek criminal charges this year, said she was frightened by a threatening voicemail she received in May after she was quoted in the Globe about the hall’s decision not to investigate Hewitt. The Star newspaper of South Africa reported that the voicemail, which Sheehan forwarded to the Globe, was left by a woman from a phone number in Addo, South Africa.
Sheehan said police are investigating that allegation, among many others.