Sex Abuse Survivors File Suit Against Morris, USEF And Flintridge

Aug 7, 2020 - 4:36 PM

Warning! This article contains explicit content and descriptions of sexual abuse.

On Aug. 5 two lawsuits were filed in New York State against the U.S. Equestrian Federation and George Morris, the former U.S. Equestrian Team show jumping chef d’equipe, seeking damages for sexual assault of a minor and negligence. The USEF banned Morris one year ago after a U.S. Center for SafeSport investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse.

A third lawsuit has also been filed in California by Gigi Gaston against the USEF and Flintridge Riding Club, the facility where top trainer Jimmy Williams taught and is alleged to have abused multiple minors including Gaston. Gaston is suing on eight counts including premises liability; negligence; negligent supervision; negligent retention; negligent failure to train, warn or educate; sexual battery; sexual harassment and gender violence.

Jonathan Soresi brought a claim against Morris and the USEF for sexual battery against Morris, negligence against all defendants and negligent supervision/failure to warn against USEF and Does 1-5. An anonymous second man (AG1 Doe) brought a similar claim against Morris with the addition of the Topping Riding Club as a defendant. The phrase “Does 1-5” acts as a placeholder in case prosecutors uncover someone else who is responsible as the case proceeds.

GeorgeMorrisslider2020
The U.S. Equestrian Federation honored George Morris with the 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award—a silver cowboy hat trophy named after Jimmy Williams. Both men have since received lifetime bans for sexual abuse by the U.S. Center for SafeSport. Nancy Jaffer/Chronicle Archives Photo

The lawsuits were filed under the New York Child Victims Act and the California Child Victims Act, laws that extend the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual abuse.

“We chose to file them together intentionally,” said attorney Mike Reck of Jeff Anderson and Associates. “We had the opportunity because of the Child Victims Act in both California and New York. It’s not lost on us that yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the lifetime ban of George Morris. These cases are not just about the individual cases. Yes, these are two individual offenders, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened in an industry and a community that allowed it to happen. This was a conscious choice by us as advocates for and with the survivors to bring attention to this and to bring these cases at the same time. We worked really hard to work on the timing with different time zones and different courts to have them filed on the same day because we think it’s important. Each of those individual survivors isn’t doing this on their own. They’re doing this as a part of the community to make the entire equestrian community safer for kids today.”

USEF CEO Bill Moroney did not immediately respond to a call for a comment, but the USEF did release the following statement.

“The actions of George Morris are reprehensible, and those he abused should never have had to endure his unconscionable and despicable behavior. We stand with and support the brave victims and survivors who have come forward to share their experiences. USEF has zero tolerance for sexual abuse—past, present, or future—and has prevention policies in place to protect equestrians from sexual abuse and misconduct.”

Reck agreed.

“He’s right,” said Reck. “What Morris did was horrible. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the USEF and its predecessor [the American Horse Shows Association] gave Morris and Williams the power to do this. These perpetrators wouldn’t have been able to access kids if they didn’t have the stature in the equestrian community that was given to them.

“They didn’t get the support that survivors are due,” he continued. “If you look at the dynamic for both Morris and Williams—these are the icons of the industry. In Morris’ situation he would still be if it wasn’t for Soresi coming forward. Others don’t know what the allegations are, and they don’t know the depth of the investigation done by SafeSport. All they know is the reputation people have. That’s hurtful to survivors.”

Horror At The Horse Shows
According to the lawsuit filed by AG1 Doe, he attracted the attention of Morris when he was 13 and showing on Long Island, New York. Doe started riding at Morris’ Hunterdon Stables in New Jersey in the summer of 1977. In his last junior year, Doe was invited to ride in a clinic with Morris, who would’ve been 40 at the time, in April of 1978 at the Topping Riding Club in Sagaponack, New York.

“While under the care of Defendants, who invited Morris to teach a clinic at their facility, Plaintiff was brutally attacked and raped by Morris. But against the grandeur and celebrity of Morris, Plaintiff could only do what many of Morris’s victims did—stay silent so as not to risk his entire career within the equestrian community,” reads the claim.

Doe returned to train with Morris in 1978 and did well at the major equitation finals. He went on to develop a successful business but never moved on from the assault. He buried himself in his work and never developed a romantic relationship in his adult life.

The claim goes on to read: “Morris has long been a key source of donations for the United States Equestrian Team Foundation—the financing arm of the US Olympic Team. Ultimately, Morris served as the Chef d’Equipe (coach) for the US Olympic team, during which time it was well-known in the industry that Morris had sexually abused many young, male riders.”

According to the lawsuit, at least one member of the USEF board of directors confirmed that “Morris’s behavior of cavorting and grooming boys had been observed.”

“As the details of the investigations, interviews and arbitrations that led to and upheld the lifetime ban become publicly known through this lawsuit, I hope the leaders of the equestrian community wholeheartedly support survivors,” said Doe in an Anderson & Associates press release.

In the claim filed by Soresi, the plaintiff met Morris when he was about 16, and Morris started mentoring and assisting Soresi and providing him with horses to ride.

In 1972 or ’73, Soresi met with Morris at the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania), and Morris gave Soresi his hotel room number, instructing him to come visit him after dinner.

“When Mr. Soresi arrived at Morris’s hotel room, Morris sexually assaulted Mr. Soresi by anal sex. After Morris finished his assault, Morris immediately took a shower and instructed Mr. Soresi to leave,” reads the claim.

Morris continued to solicit Soresi for sex, while arranging for him to ride top horses. Soresi started working for Morris as an assistant around 1975.

“For some time thereafter, Morris continued to request sex from Mr. Soresi,” reads the lawsuit. “Due to Morris’s mentorship and his status in the equestrian community, Mr. Soresi remained quiet about Morris’s sexual demands and assaults.”

The lawsuit says Morris’ sexual assaults had a long-lasting destructive impact including emotional distress, depression, relationship issues and troubles later in life. Soresi shared his story with those close to him staring around 2003, and around 2006 his brother Mark Soresi reported the sexual assaults to the New York County District Attorney’s office, but they declined to prosecute because of the statute of limitations.

“In August 2012, USEF started an investigation into Morris’s sexual assaults of Mr. Soresi, and later, another of Morris’s victims,” states the claim. “In approximately 2013, and after receiving therapy and realizing that Morris’s conduct was reprehensible and criminal, Mr. Soresi finally summoned the courage to speak the truth about Morris’s sexual assaults, at which time he reported Morris to USEF.

“USEF has long stood behind Morris as a pillar of the equestrian sport, lauding and profiting from his celebrity right up until the moment that Morris was forced out of the sport by a 2019 United States Center for SafeSport (“SafeSport”) decision, finding that he violated, among other laws, New York Penal Laws and industry codes of conduct by his sexual abuse of Plaintiff and others,” continues the claim.

After Morris received his lifetime ban, the equestrian community rallied around him. Facebook groups were formed in his support, and a GoFundMe account was established to help pay his legal fees. #IStandWithGeorge trended on Twitter, and multiple superstars in the sport publicly defended Morris and called SafeSport a sham process, demanding to know who was accusing him. The USEF remained silent.

“What happened to me was wrong,” said Soresi in the Anderson & Associates press release. “I will never know what it is like to live a life unmolested. This lawsuit is an attempt, for myself and for other victims of sexual abuse, to seek justice for that violation.”

According to Gaston’s lawsuit, at least 38 trainers, grooms and equestrian officials have come forward to describe and report Williams’ sexual assaults at Flintridge and AHSA sanctioned events. In 2016 the USEF removed Williams’ name from its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Williams allegedly abused Gaston at the Flintridge Riding Club in La Cañada, California, between 1971 and 1978 on over 100 separate occasions when Gaston was 12-18.

“Jimmy pushed me against the barn when I was unhooking my horse, pushed me against the wall when I was getting my horse together,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to make you know how to please men. Your boyfriends are all going to be so happy at what I’m going to teach you.’ He pushed me back against the wall and proceeded to shove his tongue down my throat for the very first time. I was gagging; it was so slimy. It was the worst thing ever.”

Gaston said adults at Flintridge knew that she and others were being abused and did nothing.

“To me Flintridge put their image in front of the safety of all of us,” she said. “I hope to give voices to all the little kids like [me] that didn’t have the ability to say stop, and when they did say stop no one listened.”

The Chronicle reached out to officials from the Flintridge Riding Club, who did not immediately return the call.

Beyond Equestrian
USEF is just one of many national sports federations facing lawsuits over allegations that they looked the other way when it came to sexual abuse and should have done more to protect minor athletes.

Six women have filed civil lawsuits against USA Swimming under California’s Assembly Bill 218, which extended the state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims. It also established a three-year window during which victims could bring claims that would have otherwise expired under existing statutes of limitations. The law went into effect in January 2020, and the swimmers’ lawsuits are the first major filings under it.

The swimmers’ lawsuits, which also name as defendants local associations in California and three coaches who have been banned from the sport, allege that USA Swimming, including its former executive director and other top officials, were aware of the coaches’ predatory behavior but refused to address it.

Three of the six swimmers have gone public with their accusations. Tracy Palmero alleges that former U.S. national team director Everett Uchiyama abused her beginning at age 14, in the early 1990s. Ten years later, she reported the abuse to former USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, who she said had Uchiyama sign a confidential agreement in which he admitted to the abuse and resigned. (Wielgus died in 2017 at age 67.) Uchiyama was later recommended for a coaching job at a nearby country club by another USA Swimming executive.

“This news was devastating to me. It was as if they were dismissing everything that happened to me,” Palmero said in a video press conference on June 10. “This is how USA Swimming takes care of its predator coaches.”

The swimmers are calling for an investigation and for USA Swimming to “clean house” and remove coaches and executives who were aware of abuse and did not act.

U.S. Figure Skating has also been named in two lawsuits alleging that it didn’t do enough to stop alleged sexual abuse by Olympic coach Richard Callaghan, who was suspended in December 2019 after a SafeSport investigation but will be eligible to return to coaching in 2022 after his lifetime ban was overturned by an arbitrator.

The most recent lawsuit, filed in July by former skater Craig Maurizi, seeks damages of $10 million and names U.S. Figure Skating, the Professional Skaters Association, and a local skating club. He said that credible allegations of sexual abuse by Callaghan were dismissed by the organizations.

Another skater, Adam Schmidt, filed a lawsuit in California in August 2019 against Callaghan, U.S. Figure Skating, and a Rochester, Michigan, ice rink, also alleging sexual abuse and lack of action by the organizations after Maurizi filed a grievance with the federation in 1999.

USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee are currently facing a lawsuit filed by more than 140 gymnasts (including Olympians Simone Biles and Aly Raisman) alleging that the organizations were complicit in covering up serial sexual abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar.

The NCAA is also facing a class action lawsuit, filed in California in March 2020 by three track and field athletes, alleging that the organization failed to establish rules addressing sexual misconduct. The NCAA has said it has no legal obligation to protect student athletes against sexual abuse and harassment. The three women, all high jumpers, allege that coach John Rembao sexually abused and harassed them. Rembao was temporarily suspended by SafeSport in December 2019 for allegations of misconduct.

If you have been affected by sexual assault and need confidential, anonymous support, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE or chat online at online.rainn.org. For more information on the U.S. Center for SafeSport and their policies and procedures, visit uscenterforsafesport.org.

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