Conlin sex abuse story ‘had familiar ring’ to Phillips

“Len Jenoff had a secret.

“When I first met him in February 1995, he said he was a private investigator working for Rabbi Fred J. Neulander. He said he was trying to solve the murder of the rabbi’s wife, Carol, who was killed in the couple’s Cherry Hill home on Nov. 1, 1994. Jenoff said he believed Carol Neulander was beaten to death during a robbery by someone who knew her habit of carrying large sums of money.

“For months, he steered me down wrong paths, putting me on the trail of leads that went nowhere. He introduced me to a friend who he said was a psychic and produced a sketch of the killer the friend had made. Together, Jenoff said, the two men were trying to solve the case.

“But the false trails and the psychic eventually gave way to long conversations about how troubled Jenoff was over a secret he was holding. The story came slowly as we spent hours discussing the crime over weeks, months and then years.

“Finally, he told me that the rabbi had paid him to arrange the murder. Nine days ago, he confessed to authorities in a South Jersey diner as I sat next to him in the booth.”

This May 2000 Philadelphia Inquirer story ended with Fred Neulander being jailed, after years of digging by investigative journalist Nancy Phillips.

Yet I didn’t know who Phillips was until she broke another story 11 years later.

The newsroom is always quiet during holidays, especially Christmas. If news breaks, it’s because tragedy has struck; someone has died or a newspaper has gone bankrupt. Phillips story was tragic. Four people accused Philadelphia Daily News sports writer Bill Conlin of sexually abusing them as children. The allegations dated back to the 1970′s. Statute of limitations law meant Conlin couldn’t be charged. But the victims confided their story to her.

It was a familiar beat for me. Allegations of child abuse have dominated Irish news since the Catholic Church scandal. My first big story was investigating government funding of rape crisis services in North Ireland. I had friends who were abused. It was closer to my heart than most stories.

Yet it was Phillips who intrigued me. A Google search returned some of the amazing work she’d done over the years. Why had I never heard of her?

Phillips is one of the most successful reporters of her generation. Her byline is overshadowed by the enormity of her stories, like the Neulander exposé. She graduated from college in Florida at 19, having skipped her senior year of high school. A summer interning at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune led to a full-time reporting job. After two years, she left for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she still works.

When we talked over email, I was surprised  As a kid, I thought investigative journalists were just superheroes in plain clothing; they put the bad guys away and fought crime. Phillips was the first reporter I knew who fit that description.

Yet she doesn’t have thousands of followers on Twitter. She follows 153 people and is followed by 481. She keeps a low profile. In interviews, she pushes the characters in her stories to centre stage and stays in the wings. It’s strange how, in the age of Twitter, we don’t  know who the real star reporters are. They’re too busy telling stories. Their stories go untold.

You’d assume investigating Conlin would have been difficult. Not only was he a fellow hack, he worked for the Inquirer’s sister newspaper, the Daily News. Working on any kind of sex crime story is tough. Victims are usually reluctant to speak. Yet it took only a month for the story to come together. Phillips explains:

“My colleague Amy Rosenberg is a friend of one of the women who spoke out about the abuse. Amy couldn’t do the story because her friendship represented a conflict, so she called me and asked whether I would talk to her friend. She led me to other victims, and we just took it from there. I would say it took about a month from the first phone call about it until publication. It was really just interviewing Conlin’s accusers and trying to talk to as many people as possible who had knowledge of any aspect of the story. Despite the awkwardness investigating a fellow reporter and someone who worked for Philadelphia Media Network, the editors never hesitated to encourage me to pursue the story.”

Not many journalists would have pursued a story for years, as she did with the Neulander case. Even when she left the reporter’s beat to become bureau chief of the Inquirer’s Bucks County bureau, she still chased it.

“I didn’t set out to be an investigative reporter, but from the beginning of my career, whatever the story, whatever the beat, I somehow ended up digging around for information that others hoped would never come to light,” she said by email.

“Sadly, I’ve done a fair amount of reporting on victims of childhood sexual abuse, so this [Conlin] story had a familiar ring. Covering the scandal in the Catholic Church, I interviewed scores of people who suffered similar abuse as children. So while the story was certainly emotional on some level because of the depth of the pain for all involved, it was also familiar – both from the perspective of the accusers and that of the accused.

“Because I’ve done a lot of this kind of work, I know well that it often takes victims years – if not decades – to gather the strength to speak about what happened to them as children. In this case, however, several of Conlin’s accusers had told their parents what happened to them when they were children. I was able to speak to the parents, who confirmed the victims’ accounts that they told their parents about this when they were young and who told me how they dealt with it at the time. The parents were uniformly sorry that they did not call the police but settled instead for confronting Conlin and keeping their children away from him after they learned what had happened.”

Our interview was brief. Phillips doesn’t seek the limelight. She helps victims tell their stories. Even when they can’t, like Carol Neulander.

A version of this story originally appeared on The Muckraker.

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