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More Louisville Catholic School Alums Allege Abuse By Coach

Drew Conliffe in 2015
The Messenger
Drew Conliffe in 2015

In the summer of 1992, a 13-year-old boy confided to his mother that Drew Conliffe, his former basketball coach, had sexually abused him four times during the past month.

The mother called police. The boy’s father cussed out Conliffe. And he shared the basics of his son’s story with a couple of other members of the athletics booster club at Our Lady of Lourdes School, where Conliffe, then 25, coached, and where the boy was about to begin eighth grade.

His mother said police expressed no interest in the case. The booster club quietly dismissed Conliffe from Lourdes, but apparently took no other action. And the boy didn’t want to tell others, fearing that he would be stigmatized if word of the abuse spread.

In October 1992, Conliffe wrote a letter of regret to the boy’s father, although he never said precisely what he was apologizing for.

“One of my biggest faults as a person is that I sometimes carry things too far with people, and I certainly did that with (your son),” the letter said.

“For that, I am sorry and I hope someday you and (your wife) can respect me as a person because I know I have lost that respect.”

He said he would stop coaching at Lourdes, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school in St. Matthews, if the parents felt so strongly about it.

And then Conliffe resumed his basketball coaching career — this time at Holy Spirit, another Catholic school less than two miles away, where another child would allege abuse.

Two families interviewed recently by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting alleged sexual abuse by Conliffe that has not previously been made public — one involving the child who was a student at Lourdes School, and a second case of abuse at Holy Spirit School. Both alleged victims requested anonymity.

Archdiocese of Louisville and parish school officials denied to KyCIR that they had any knowledge of the accusations against Conliffe while he was at Lourdes or at Holy Spirit. They even denied knowing whether Conliffe ever coached at any parish school, and a representative of the archdiocese refused to give a reporter access to school yearbooks.

But more than a dozen people told KyCIR that Conliffe coached at Lourdes, and then at Holy Spirit.

The former Holy Spirit student told KyCIR his abuse began in early 1997 and lasted for more than four years — into his senior year at Trinity High School, where Conliffe also coached. That case was never brought to the attention of school or church officials, or to police.

“Your report of cases of abuse are the first we have heard of these occurrences at these two parishes,” said Archdiocese spokesperson Cecelia Price.

An investigation by KyCIR published in November revealed that Conliffe escaped serious consequences after, in 2003, Trinity High School student Eric Flynn alleged sexual abuse by Conliffe.

Conliffe and his father, a former Jefferson County Attorney, made payments of more than $73,000 to Flynn and his family to pay for therapy, college and other expenses in the decade following the allegation.

Conliffe moved full time into the world of Kentucky junior golf in the early 2000s as the executive director of the Kentucky Junior Golf Foundation. In all, he coached and taught young athletes for more than two decades, until early this year.

Conliffe declined to be interviewed before the November investigation was published, and he has not responded to a half-dozen telephone messages since. He left his job running the junior golf foundation early this year, and it is unclear what he is doing now — including whether he continues to work with children.

An Abuse Disclosure And Call To Police

The former Lourdes student is now a 40-year-old businessman. But his recollections of August 1992, when he was about to turn 14, are still vivid.

He read KyCIR’s investigation, and Eric Flynn’s account of abuse while a student at Trinity. He told KyCIR that it gave him chills.

“Brought back a lot of memories... bad memories.”

He shared them on the condition that he not be identified by name.

He recalls Conliffe, a neighbor who had just turned 25, coming to his home unexpectedly and saying he wanted to talk about something.

He remembers going with Conliffe downstairs to the living room. Talking quickly turning into roughhousing. Then he said he ended up on his back, with Conliffe on top of him, his erect penis on the boy’s foot.

“He definitely guided me to the floor. I certainly didn’t just fall...He certainly put me in that position,” he recalled.

There were three more encounters in the next few weeks. He said Conliffe thrust the boy’s bare foot inside Conliffe’s pants, touching his genitals.

Other times, the former Lourdes student said, when he saw Conliffe’s car pull into the driveway, he locked the doors and hid until he left.

The last time Conliffe came to the front door, the boy ran out the back. His sister answered, and told Conliffe her brother wasn’t at home.

His sister complained to their mother about having to get up and answer the door. She asked her son why he ran away, and he told her about the abuse.

The mother said his disclosure triggered a memory from the previous spring in Destin, Florida, when several Lourdes’ families were vacationing. When Conliffe stopped by one day to see if her son wanted to play video games, she thought it strange that he’d want to hang out with a kid half his age.

After hearing her son’s description of the abuse, she quickly called Louisville police.

In an interview with KyCIR, the mother said she doesn’t have any documentation of the 1992 call. But she believes she spoke with a detective who investigated crimes against children.

She said the detective told her that there was no case to pursue because she had no physical evidence, and it would be her son’s word against Conliffe’s.

Police did not ask her to bring in her son to be interviewed. They did no investigation, as far as she knew.

“It felt like there wasn’t much option,” she said. “They weren’t going to be able to help.”

Louisville Metro Police said in a December 11 response to a records request that any documentation of the call would be in archives, and that the department might need up to a month to locate and review it.

“It would be inappropriate to speculate on what ‘should have happened’ in this 26-year-old scenario without greater detail,” LMPD spokesperson Jessie Halladay said in an email.

Halladay said the LMPD takes allegations of sexual abuse seriously.

“These cases are often complex and difficult to investigate for a number of reasons, including sometimes there is very little evidence to follow up on,” Halladay said.

The man said he feels some regret now for his silence as a child, a decade before Flynn alleged abuse by the same coach.

“The pain and suffering he’s gone through, certainly that makes you kinda look backwards... that another person had to go through a similar experience, maybe even a worse experience.”

He said his parents encouraged him to see a counselor, but he didn’t want anyone else to know, for fear of being stigmatized.

“I kinda wanted to push it aside and forget it, and move on,” he said.

After Conliffe left Lourdes, a boy at Conliffe’s next Louisville school — Holy Spirit — alleges that he too was victimized by Conliffe. He discussed the allegation with KyCIR after its investigation published last month, on the condition that his name not be used.

Now 35 years old, he said Conliffe began abusing him in early 1997, when he was 13 and in eighth grade at Holy Spirit. He said he played basketball there, and Conliffe was an assistant coach.

He said the abuse occurred at the school, at business offices, at hotels while Conliffe worked golf tournaments and at Conliffe’s home. Conliffe always kept his pants on but rubbed his genitals on the boy’s bare feet and ankles, he said.

His mother told KyCIR that she once went into his bedroom when he was with Conliffe. She said she found her son dressed only in his underwear.

Conliffe was fully clothed, standing nearby.

“I said, ‘What are you doing here?’” the mother recalled. “He said, ‘Just talking to (her son).’ “My gut said that’s not OK, but he was a coach, always in the locker room with these guys.”

She said she left the room without further discussion.

Her son said Conliffe’s sexual abuse lasted more than four years, until shortly before his graduation from Trinity in 2001.

The man said if he resisted Conliffe’s advances, Conliffe threatened to stop buying him the alcohol that he regularly provided. That proved to be a useful negotiating tactic, the man said, “since I developed quite an alcohol dependency over the course of his abuse.”

The situation was embarrassing, he said, and he didn’t want anyone to know what was happening. So, he said, he tried to fight back without leaving marks.

“I'd somehow maneuver as best as I could to pull his ears and nose as hard as possible without tearing them off his face,” he said.

He never told the school or police. He said he had “the misconstrued idea” that he didn’t want to bring shame to Conliffe.

Such reluctance to speak out is not unusual in a culture that has often shamed, rather than supported, male and female victims of sexual assault and abuse, said Dr. James Hopper, an independent consultant and part-time psychology instructor at the Harvard Medical School.

“There’s a lot of stigma and shame associated with child sexual abuse, especially of boys. The victims don’t want to tell anyone, their families don’t want to tell anyone,” Hopper said.

“For boys, to be victimized, to be ‘weak,’ to be vulnerable, to be used sexually — these all are the antithesis of what it is to be a ‘real man’ and what masculinity is supposed to entail.”

Conliffe Firing Handled By Booster Club

After the Lourdes student alleged abuse in the summer of 1992, his father told KyCIR that he walked down the street to the Conliffe family’s home and confronted Drew Conliffe.

He warned Conliffe to stay away from his house, and his kids.

Next, he brought the issue to his fellow members of the school’s athletic booster club.

He and two other boosters then summoned Conliffe to a meeting, the father said, and told Conliffe his coaching days at Lourdes were over.

He remembers that Jefferson County Attorney Mike Conliffe, Drew Conliffe’s father, got involved, and he argued against his son’s ouster from Lourdes.

The father doesn’t recall sharing details about the abuse allegation with Mike Conliffe; the booster club’s decision stood.

Mike Conliffe did not respond to several requests from KyCIR for comment.

Word of Drew Conliffe’s actions apparently did not circulate at Lourdes beyond the small group of athletics boosters.

“It was all handled within the booster club,” the boy’s father told KyCIR. “The booster club was the boss of the sports and the fundraising.”

Indeed, Bernadette Ritchey, who was principal of Lourdes School at the time, told KyCIR that she had “no connection” with athletics programs. She also led Holy Spirit School during at least some of the time when Conliffe coached there.

“If you’re talking about coaching, the athletic organization of the school is like a different arm,” Ritchey said.

By contrast, principals in Jefferson County’s public middle schools are ultimately responsible for overseeing athletics, according to JCPS spokesperson Renee Murphy.

Ritchey also said, in a brief interview weeks after KyCIR’s story published, that she had never heard of Conliffe.

“I don’t know that name,” Ritchey told KyCIR.

Asked about the sexual abuse allegations against a coach and the principals’ lack of oversight over athletics programs, Price of the archdiocese said athletics are parish programs, not school programs. She said KyCIR’s sources “need to call police.”

“We will turn over any records to the police,” Price told KyCIR. “Until we know about a police investigation, we won’t be providing more information to you.”

The boy’s father said he and the other athletics boosters at Lourdes never discussed sharing information with school officials there or at Holy Spirit School, once Conliffe began coaching there.

“At the time, I thought we were doing the right thing,” he said. “Really didn’t want to ruin this guy’s (Drew’s) life with some accusations that we couldn’t prove.”

The issue was resolved and forgotten, as far as the family was concerned, until they read Eric Flynn’s remarkably similar story of abuse by Conliffe.

'Nobody Wants To Do Anything'

Eric Flynn is disappointed and angry that little appears to have resulted from his public disclosure that Conliffe sexually abused him.

Flynn told KyCIR he met Conliffe in middle school, when Conliffe coached at Holy Spirit. The abuse began while Flynn was a student and Conliffe was a coach at Trinity High School.

His family went to police in 2003, and again earlier this year. But he was told the prosecutor declined to take the case because there was insufficient evidence that Conliffe used force — a required element to bring sexual abuse charges at the time.

He wants police and prosecutors to revisit their decision not to pursue Conliffe. He wants other institutions to try and ensure that Conliffe didn’t abuse others. And he wants more victims to speak out and press for action.

“I thought child molesters were the worst of the worst,” he said. “We’ve targeted one, got him our crosshairs, and nobody wants to do [anything]... “I’m just not sure what else to do.

“I’m beyond frustrated. I’m pissed off.”

Taylor Whatley, a lifelong friend and college roommate of Eric Flynn’s, said he knew about Flynn’s allegations against Conliffe years ago. Whatley said he had seen Conliffe working out at the Jewish Community Center, and warned Conliffe to steer clear.

After KyCIR published Flynn's account in November, Whatley shared it with JCC officials, who promptly canceled Conliffe’s membership.

“We’re a community center for the entire community, people of all ages looking for [a] warm, safe, inclusive environment,” JCC President and Chief Executive Officer Sara Wagner said. “When we think that might be impeded, we reserve the right to terminate someone’s membership.”

But the status of the LMPD investigation into Drew Conliffe is unchanged. An LMPD spokesperson said the department hasn’t received any new allegations against Conliffe, or reopened Flynn’s case.

But someone is apparently trying to draw attention to the allegations.

Flyers with Conliffe’s picture were recently stapled to several utility poles in eastern Louisville, not far from the three Catholic schools where the abuse allegations involving Conliffe had surfaced years earlier. Someone quickly pulled them down.

They echo flyers that went around in 2008, when Conliffe was immersed in junior golf. Anonymous flyers were mailed to area golf clubs accusing him of being a “child molester.”

The new flyers again call Conliffe a child molester.

“Please help us stop him,” recent flyers proclaimed, “because the law won’t.”

R.G. Dunlop is an award-winning investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms. Email R.G. at rdunlop@lpm.org.

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