George H. Morris, a former United States Olympic team coach who is widely considered the godfather of equestrian sport, has been permanently barred from the sport after an investigation into “sexual misconduct involving a minor,” it was announced on Tuesday.
The United States Equestrian Federation provisionally barred Mr. Morris in August. The United States Center for SafeSport, the organization charged with investigating incidents of misconduct in Olympic sports, made his expulsion permanent on Tuesday, after an appeal by Mr. Morris.
“No matter how big a figure is in their sport, or how old the allegations, nobody is above accountability,” Ju’Riese Colón, the chief operating officer of Center for SafeSport, said in a statement. “Athletes and other sport participants must be empowered to stand up for what’s right and speak out against what they know to be wrong.”
The lifetime ban came after at least two people came forward to report that they had been victimized as minors during Mr. Morris’s coaching career. The accusations, primarily about conduct in the 1960s and ’70s set off a monthslong investigation by the Center for SafeSport.
The findings of that investigation, the details of which the center keeps confidential to protect victims, warranted a lifetime ban, Ms. Colón said. It is the center’s strongest penalty and a measure that is “not taken lightly,” she said. “The process is exhaustive and includes many provisions to ensure fairness so both claimants and responding parties are given ample opportunity to speak for themselves, provide evidence, seek counsel and be heard in front of another independent body.”
The decision to uphold Mr. Morris’s expulsion followed days of heated proceedings in which Mr. Morris, his accusers and supporters testified before an independent arbitrator in Manhattan.
The decision is now binding and cannot be appealed, according to SafeSport rules.
The initial provisional ban set off a furor in the equestrian world, where action figures of Mr. Morris are collectors’ items and his books on riding are gospel. Many equestrians, including some of the sport’s superstars, rushed to his defense, denigrating anonymous accusers online or describing positive training experiences with Mr. Morris in online forums and in vast private Facebook groups of his supporters.
“The victims in these matters not only suffered the abuse they first report, they often bravely survive countless attacks, even in their sport, for having the courage to speak up,” Ms. Colón of SafeSport said. ”Such a response is wrong on many levels, including the fact that it re-victimizes those who already suffered more than anyone should.”
Mr. Morris, 81, won a silver medal in show jumping in the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, before going on to coach the United States and Brazilian Olympic teams.
He had vowed to appeal SafeSport’s initial decision. Mr. Morris did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Today’s ruling is the result of the Center’s process, and we respect their decision,” Bill Moroney, the equestrian federation’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
In the challenging landscape of investigating sexual abuse allegations, particularly those that are decades old, Mr. Morris’s case stood out for its deep complications.
Only one of Mr. Morris’s accusers has gone public: Jonathan Soresi, a former student of an assistant trainer to Mr. Morris, is himself a registered sex offender. In 2007, Mr. Soresi pleaded guilty to a felony count for the possession of child pornography. He is also barred by SafeSport.
“The transgressions of my past do not invalidate the reality of what happened to me,” Mr. Soresi said at the time of Mr. Morris’s initial ban.
The ban rocked an insular and rarefied world already reeling from revelations of sexual abuse by other luminaries. In June, Robert Gage, a California-based coach, killed himself as he fought a SafeSport suspension for sexual misconduct with several minors. A 2018 investigation by The New York Times revealed that Jimmy A. Williams, a top trainer of show-jumping prodigies who died in 1993, had abused many of the children he taught over his 50-year career.
Mr. Morris’s relationships with his young students have long been whispered about on horse show grounds. However, few would speak publicly about the accusations, partly because of deference to his status as an equestrian legend, and partly out of fear of his ability to make or break careers.
“It’s been tough for sure to watch and to listen sometimes; I had to just unplug from it. The saddest part is the victim-shaming, the not believing,” said Anne Kursinski, a five-time Olympian who came forward last year about being abused as a minor by Mr. Williams. As an adult, Ms. Kursinski was coached by Mr. Morris in several Olympic Games, and she credits him with “putting me on the map.” She has said she never witnessed abuse by Mr. Morris.
“All that he accomplished in his career, you cannot take that away from him, the medals he won, and the people he coached,” Ms. Kursinski said upon hearing the news of Mr. Morris’s expulsion. “But if the other is true, that’s a truth as well,” she added. “People coming forward and speaking up will help the next generation.”
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