Former doubles champion Bob Hewitt has been suspended from the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport after an investigation into allegations that he sexually abused girls he coached, and his legacy has been stripped from the institution, officials announced Thursday.
Hall of Fame CEO Mark Stenning told The Associated Press that the Hall's executive committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to suspend Hewitt indefinitely after an outside investigation deemed credible the allegations of multiple women who said they were abused by Hewitt while he was coaching them decades ago.
The Australian-born Hewitt won several Grand Slam events during his career in the 1960s and 1970s and was inducted into the Hall in 1992.
No one has ever been suspended or expelled from the Hall. Stenning said the committee did not consider expulsion because it was believed that would require a criminal conviction.
Contact information for Hewitt, who lives in South Africa, could not immediately be found. The Weekend Post newspaper in South Africa quoted him last year as saying, "I only want to apologize if I offended anyone in any way.''
Stenning said Hewitt's plaque in the enshrinement hall and other references to him at the Hall, and on the Hall's website, were removed on Thursday. The website had called him an "enduringly elegant player'' and a "master of the doubles craft.''
"His legacy ceases to exist in the Hall of Fame,'' Stenning said.
Attorney Michael Connolly of the firm Hinckley, Allen & Snyder, which the Hall hired to conduct the inquiry, said he interviewed more than two dozen people over several months. He spent 10 hours interviewing Hewitt, who was accompanied by two South African lawyers, in September, but would not characterize those discussions.
Connolly said he pursued every lead he came across. "We identified as many of the victims as we could, spoke to them, spoke to their family members and spoke to a host of others with relevant information,'' he said.
Connolly presented his initial findings to the executive committee in September, then made a final presentation to the panel in New York City on Wednesday, according to Stenning. Not all members of the committee were in attendance, but everyone who was there voted in favor of indefinitely suspending Hewitt.
The Hall changed its bylaws earlier this year to allow for both suspension and expulsion.
Among those Connolly interviewed was Heather Conner, of West Newbury, Mass. She says she was sexually abused by Hewitt starting at age 15, when she says he forced her to have sex with him near a high school in Massachusetts. The AP typically doesn't identify people who say they were sexually abused, unless they agree to be named publicly.
Conner, who has spoken publicly before and agreed to be identified, had been critical of the Hall for not taking action sooner and had sought Hewitt's expulsion. She said Thursday that she was surprised - and pleased -- by the Hall's decision.
"Honestly, I really didn't think they were going to do anything,'' she said. "I'm thankful that they've listened and heard. It feels good to be believed.''
At least two of Hewitt's accusers in South Africa had asked authorities to open a rape investigation. A South African lawyer representing some of the women told The AP in July that the criminal investigation has moved slowly. The status of the case was not immediately clear Thursday.