They felt voiceless, their cries for help neglected by an institution that long has honored the man they say sexually abused them.
For 10 months, five women who allege tennis great Bob Hewitt molested them as minors between the 1970s and 1990s wondered why the International Tennis Hall of Fame failed to act on their request to remove him from the organization’s gallery of stars.
Now they have an answer. Ending months of near-silence, the hall’s executive director, Mark Stenning, expressed regret Tuesday that the organization waited so long before it recently opened an investigation into Hewitt’s alleged misconduct. He said the hall spent months deliberating how to respond to the allegations in part because it never before had confronted such a case.
“Looking back, there are probably a number of things we should have done more swiftly and better,’’ Stenning said from Newport, R.I., where the hall is based.
“Shame on me,’’ Stenning added, for not sooner explaining the hall’s decisions to the alleged victims and the public.
The lengthy delay particularly pained Hewitt’s accusers because Tony Trabert, the hall’s president, responded last year to a Globe story detailing their allegations by announcing the organization would fully investigate the matter.
“We’re going to be diligent about it and see what we can discover,’’ Trabert said at the time.
But when Trabert’s term ended less than a week later, the hall chose to launch an exhaustive review of its options rather than act on Trabert’s pledge.
“We had a lot of internal, really in-depth discussions,’’ Stenning said. “Every week or two for months, eight or nine of us would hash this thing out, looking at different documents, looking at different research we had done with other halls of fame. We were looking inward.’’
Meanwhile, they left Hewitt’s accusers and the public in the dark, all but ignoring requests for explanations.
“They should have been able to chew gum and walk at the same time,’’ said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, which has advocated for Hewitt’s alleged victims, including Heather Crowe Conner, of West Newbury. “They should have investigated the case and looked long-term at the policies they have in place to prevent these kinds of cases from happening again.’’
In May, Stenning issued a brief statement saying the hall had dropped its plan to investigate the scandal. The announcement triggered a backlash, culminating with the hall last month reversing course and hiring a Boston law firm — Hinckley, Allen & Snyder — to launch an inquiry.
Michael J. Connolly, a former federal prosecutor with the firm, has begun interviewing the alleged victims, including Crowe Conner. She said she had just turned 15 when Hewitt, then a Boston Lobsters star, first had sex with her outside Masconomet Regional High School.
Crowe Conner said she has been distressed by the lackluster reaction from the tennis community since she came forward last year with her allegations against Hewitt. She was particularly hurt that the United States Tennis Association, the sport’s governing body in the country, showed no interest in pursuing the matter.
“I have felt forgotten and unimportant to tennis,’’ Crowe Conner said.
But she was heartened by the hall’s decision to open an investigation, despite the delay.
“Believe it or not, I understand’’ the delay, she said. “I do know they are in a difficult position. There is not a lot of precedent. On top of that, many other organizations and powers that be in the tennis world and even the tennis media have hidden from this.’’
The four other women who formally requested Hewitt’s ouster from the hall said they were molested by him as young girls when he was coaching them in their native South Africa.
Hewitt, who has lived in South Africa since the 1960s, has not been charged with a crime. He is being investigated by South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority after several of the women he coached when they were underage sought criminal charges against him.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this’’ investigation by the hall, said Suellen Sheehan, of South Africa, who alleges she was 12 when Hewitt first had sex with her. “I believe that if we can get Hewitt out of the hall of fame, we can change the way things work in that organization from here on forward.’’
Stenning said the hall has adopted a policy to deal with cases like Hewitt’s.
“It empowers the executive committee to suspend or expel a member of the hall of fame based on credible evidence,’’ regardless of whether the member faces criminal charges, Stenning said.
Connolly is expected to present his findings to the organization’s 24-member executive committee either during the annual hall of fame week in Newport July 9-15 or later this month. A vote soon would follow, Stenning indicated.
“This is all brand new territory for us,’’ Stenning said, “but we want to get this right.’’