Disgraced tennis star Bob Hewitt was suspended indefinitely from the International Tennis Hall of Fame Thursday, following a lengthy investigation into allegations that he sexually abused underage girls he coached, from Greater Boston to his South African homeland from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
The Hall of Fame stopped short of expelling Hewitt, one of the greatest doubles players in tennis history, because he has not been convicted of a crime, according to executive director Mark Stenning.
Stenning said more than 25 members of the Hall’s executive committee voted unanimously Wednesday to suspend Hewitt because of the sexual abuse scandal.
“As of today, his plaque will be removed from the Hall of Fame,’’ Stenning said. “His name will be removed from our website and all other materials, and from the perspective of the Hall of Fame, he ceases to be a Hall of Famer.’’
Hewitt’s ouster ends decades of inaction by the international tennis community, particularly in South Africa, where officials acknowledged they were long ago informed of the allegations against him.
The Hall of Fame, in Newport, R.I., launched the investigation after the Globe last year published the results of a six-month investigation into Hewitt that involved dozens of interviews in the United States and South Africa. Six women publicly identified themselves as Hewitt’s alleged victims, and numerous others who were cited as possible victims either declined to be interviewed or could not be reached.
“This is an awesome day,’’ Suellen Sheehan said tearfully by phone from South Africa. She said she was 12 when Hewitt first had sex with her after a coaching session. “The liberation I feel right now is indescribable, and the emotion is overwhelming.’’
Hewitt’s removal came more than a year after the Hall responded to the Globe report by announcing it would investigate the allegations. As it turned out, several months passed before the Hall hired Michael J. Connolly, a former federal prosecutor and a partner in the Boston-based law firm of Hinckley Allen and Snyder, to lead the inquiry.
Connolly, by all accounts, conducted an exhaustive investigation, including recently spending more than eight hours interviewing Hewitt in Boston. Stenning and Christopher Clouser, the Hall’s chairman, also traveled to South Africa to interview Hewitt.
“In the beginning, we were slow to start because this was entirely unprecedented ground for us,’’ Stenning said. “But we didn’t take the matter lightly. We expended tremendous resources and time on it and feel comfortable that we have done the right thing.”
In a letter that went out to every member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Stenning described the suspension as “the appropriate course of action for the Hall of Fame, for the women who have made these allegations, and our sport.’’
South Africa’s national prosecutor is in the midst of a months-long investigation of Hewitt, and earlier this month, the South African Police Services made a public appeal for anyone with information about the allegations against him to come forward.
Peter Van Niekirk, a lawyer representing several of Hewitt’s alleged victims, said Thursday from Johannesburg about the status of the investigation, “I understand there have been developments and he is going to be criminally charged.’’
He had no additional information and attempts by the Globe to reach the national prosecutor were unsuccessful.
Hewitt, 72, who also could not be reached, generally denied the allegations in an interview with the Globe last year outside his farmhouse in rural Addo, South Africa. But he made several potentially incriminating comments, including, “I just want to forget about it,’’ in regard to his relationship with one of his accusers, Heather Crowe Conner.
Hewitt last month launched a public relations effort in South Africa, with articles in You magazine and a newspaper in Port Elizabeth, near Addo. He not only denied the charges but portrayed himself as a victim.
“Overnight my life changed for the worse [after the allegations surfaced],” he told the magazine. “It’s been traumatic for us all,’’ he said, referring to his family.
In 1992, Hewitt and his doubles partner, Frew McMillan, became the only South Africans to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“I’ve been on cloud nine since I was inducted,’’ Hewitt told You magazine. “I didn’t set out to make it to the Hall. But I reached that pinnacle and it doesn’t seem fair to me that it can be taken away based on untested allegations.’’Continued...