Four years ago, Heather Crowe Conner was decades removed from the sexual abuse she allegedly suffered as a girl at the hands of a Hall of Fame tennis champion, when the horror began to consume her. She sought justice and found none.
Then she appealed to state leaders. Now, nearly 40 years after Bob Hewitt, a world doubles titlist who was fresh off a star turn with the Boston Lobsters, recruited her as a 14-year-old tennis prodigy and allegedly first raped her, Conner finally is free to try to hold Hewitt legally accountable for years of alleged abuse.
Just days after Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a bill increasing the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits, Conner has sued Hewitt in US District Court for allegedly raping and battering her from 1975 until she turned 18 in 1979.
Conner, who teaches at North Reading Memorial High School, campaigned for the new law, which changed the maximum age for a victim of child sexual abuse to sue an abuser to 53 from 21.
Her lawsuit is one of the first made possible by the new statute according to advocates for victims of child sexual abuse. She had sought unsuccessfully in recent years to press criminal charges against Hewitt.
“I am thankful the state passed the law that allows me to seek some justice from Hewitt,’’ said Conner, who turns 53 Saturday. “Taking him to [civil] court was never my intention when I first revealed what he did to me, but it is available now, so I feel it is the right thing to do to try to get him to accept full responsibility.’’
In 2011, Conner’s case triggered a Globe investigation that led to the International Hall of Fame indefinitely suspending Hewitt and the South African government charging him with sexually assaulting three other underage girls he was coaching. He has indicated he will fight the charges. His trial is scheduled for Feb. 9 in Johannesburg.
Hewitt, 74, lives in a remote section of South Africa’s western cape and could not be reached Wednesday. Nor could his attorney.
When a Globe reporter encountered Hewitt in 2011 at his rural estate, the former tennis great denied Conner’s allegations.
“I’d just rather forget about it,’’ he said.
He said, too, “Why is she bringing it up now?’’
Conner, of West Newbury, was a member of the Pentucket Regional School Committee in 2010 when she stepped down, citing emotional trauma she was suffering from her long-suppressed memories of the alleged abuse.
Her lawsuit recounts Hewitt recruiting her in 1975 at the former Village Green Racquet and Swim Club in Danvers, where he took a job coaching after a stint with the Lobsters.
“He told her she had the potential to be a great player and offered to train her for a reduced fee,’’ the suit states.
After a period in which he endeared himself to her, Conner alleged, Hewitt raped her as a minor near the tennis courts at Masconomet Regional High School in Topsfield. He continued to coerce her to have sex with him, she alleged, with assaults occurring at the Longwood Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill and a hotel in Springfield, among other locations.
“Hewitt never used any means of birth control, but instead required Heather to keep track of her monthly period, which caused her to have great fears regarding the possibility of pregnancy, abortion, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases,’’ the lawsuit states.
During the span of the alleged abuse, Hewitt won the US Open doubles title with Frew McMillan in 1977. Conner became the Massachusetts high school singles champion the same year, and by 1982 she was the top-rated US women’s amateur. She later played professionally.
But since she began to spiral emotionally in 2010, Conner has been hospitalized numerous times for psychiatric treatment, according to the lawsuit. She “has suffered severe and permanent emotional injury,’’ the suit alleges.
Her attorney, Carmen Durso, spent 11 years persuading the Legislature to change the law that barred child sexual abuse victims from suing after age 21. He credited Conner and other alleged victims with spurring legislative action by presenting their experiences to lawmakers.
Durso estimated he will seek “hundreds of thousands’’ of dollars in damages for Conner. But compelling Hewitt, a citizen of South Africa, to appear in a US civil court will be difficult, if not impossible, Durso said. Regardless, Conner can present her case even if Hewitt fails to appear, and a judgment can be rendered.
“We may never see a dollar from this guy,’’ Durso said. “But the possibility of Heather recovering money from him is not the motivating force. It’s about giving her a voice in the legal system and an opportunity to hold him responsible.’’
Advocates for victims of child sexual abuse cited the new law and Conner’s case as the beginning of a new era in combatting the problem.
“We have succeeded in wresting power away from the abusers who were largely protected under the old law,’’ said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children. “That power now resides with survivors like Heather who can finally seek justice in the courts.’’
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