THE CRIMINAL STATUTE of limitations has expired on the sex crimes that Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin is accused of committing four decades ago. Back then, the alleged incidents needed to have been reported to law enforcement within five years of occurring. Instead, they were supposedly kept secret by the families of the accusers.

So Conlin will never be tried in a criminal court. No jury will ever decide whether he's innocent or guilty of molesting children in the 1970s, when the kids - three girls and a boy - were ages 7 to 12.

I must therefore use the word "alleged" regarding this sordid story. Because heaven forbid I should libel my 77-year-old former colleague, who retired as the story went public two days ago.

For the record, then, Conlin is an alleged perv who allegedly violated children in ways so revolting that I can't think of a punishment harsh enough to give justice to his alleged victims.

Well, I can think of one. But baseball bats aren't supposed to be used that way.

OK, OK. I'm no proponent of vigilante justice. But, Lord forgive me, I understand the urge after reading Nancy Phillips' meticulously reported Inquirer story about Conlin's alleged sexual violation of at least four kids, including his niece.

The accusations include fondling. Genital penetration with a finger. Repeated molestation. Warnings to keep things secret.

The tale is atrocious, heartbreaking.

Gloucester County criminal prosecutors, who videotaped statements from the four last year, appear to have believed the accusers. Their frustration is palpable in an email that Gloucester County Detective Stacie Lick sent to one of them.

"We would love to see justice in this case," wrote Lick. "So many people have been victimized by this man, but our hands are tied by the law, which does not let us prosecute."

Conlin's lawyer, George Bochetto, told Phillips that his client is "floored by the accusations, which supposedly happened 40 years ago," and that Conlin wants to "vindicate his name."

But how? How can you fight such explosive charges anywhere but in a courtroom, where both accuser and accused are subject to rules of evidence?

You can't. That's why this country needs to abolish all statutes of limitation on childhood sex abuse - criminal and civil. Children need time to mature to an age where they can reckon with what was done to them and become their own advocates for justice.

And we, as a society, need our laws to tell victims that what happened to them is as heinous as murder, which has no statute of limitations.

In New Jersey, where Conlin's alleged crimes took place, the criminal statute of limitations on sex crimes was lifted in 1996, but the new law is not retroactive to cases that occurred before that year. Civilly, New Jersey victims may bring charges within two years from the date at which they realized that they were abused.

For many, that "A-ha!" moment happens only after they've entered therapy, or confronted the reasons for, say, their drug or alcohol abuse. Despicably, an accuser's addiction is often used to impugn his or her credibility.

But who's to say that two years - or five, or 10 years - is enough time to summon the courage to bring charges and deal with the fallout of an investigation and possible trial? Not every abuse case is the same, nor does every abuse victim react in the same way to a sexual violation. Applying a time limit is so arbitrary as to be nonsensical.

Defenders of the statutes argue that accusations are hard to defend decades after the fact, so grave injustice would be done to the falsely accused. But old cases are even harder to prosecute, since the burden of proof is on the accuser.

Besides, abolishing the statutes doesn't ensure an automatic conviction; it ensures only that an accuser is given chance to make a case. Prosecutors still have to decide whether there's enough evidence to proceed to court. And even then, it's still up to a jury to decide guilt or innocence.

No verdict is guaranteed.

What is probable, though, is that, by trial's end, both accuser and accused will never again have to use a certain adjective to describe themselves.

The word "alleged."

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