Astute watchers of the U.S. Center for SafeSport’s online suspension list likely noticed that around the same time that George Morris appeared on the Center’s website as permanently ineligible (pending appeal, at the time), Jonathan Soresi, who had just gone public in The New York Times describing the relationship he had with Morris as a teenager, was also listed as permanently ineligible, pending appeal.
Then, around the same time that Morris’ permanent ban was upheld, and his status changed to “permanently ineligible” on the SafeSport website, Soresi was removed, indicating he had succeeded in his appeal and had been reinstated.
So what’s going on?
Back in 2006, Soresi was charged with possessing child pornography in Onondaga County, New York, after he took his laptop to a Best Buy for service while attending a horse show in Syracuse. Service technicians called the police when they discovered the images.
Soresi pleaded guilty in 2007 to one felony count, admitting that he had 16 photographs and one video of child pornography on his computer. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and was required to attend therapy for the length of his probation.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation hearing committee also revoked his judge’s license in 2007 and expelled him as a member, meaning that he had to petition the committee to be reinstated, which he did in 2008 and his membership was subsequently reinstated. (He did not reapply for his judge’s card.) The USEF confirmed to the Chronicle that he is currently a member in good standing.
In a telephone interview with the Chronicle, Soresi said that the state of New York, where he was charged, presented the evidence of his case to the state of New Jersey, where he lives, and a judge decided that the circumstances of his case did not require him to register as a sex offender in New Jersey.
But when he traveled to Florida for the winter circuit in 2008, Soresi said, he registered there, as required by law as a temporary resident. Sexual offenders stay on the Florida registry for life, unless they receive a full pardon or post-conviction release, so Soresi is still listed on the registry in Florida today. (Certain offenders can petition a court to be removed from the registry 25 years after they have been released from supervision, if they’ve had no further arrests.)
In 2019, SafeSport’s list of prohibited conduct was updated to include being on a state sexual offender registry. Soresi had informed investigators working on the Morris case, in which he was cooperating, in 2017 that he was on the registry in Florida.
In August, Soresi, like Morris, was banned pending appeal.
Both Morris and Soresi appealed their respective SafeSport bans in arbitration. According to an arbitration fact sheet provided by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, to “ensure a fair process, Respondents may request that the Center present its case to an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator will review the facts and evidence and reach an independent and binding decision regarding whether the Center has shown a violation more likely than not occurred (preponderance of the evidence) and, if so, imposed the appropriate sanction.”
In Morris’ case, the arbitrator decided the Center had shown a violation more than likely occurred, and his ban was upheld. In Soresi’s case, a different independent arbitrator ruled against the Center, and Soresi had his ban vacated and was removed from the suspension lists on the SafeSport and USEF websites.
Although Soresi’s suspension and its resolution occurred on a similar timeline to Morris’, the timing is coincidental, Soresi said. In one case, he was the respondent (the person accused), and in the other, he was the claimant (the victim), and there was no overlap between the cases.
Due to the timing of the arbitration decisions, some commenters on social media have inferred that Soresi’s vacated ban might be related to Morris’ upheld ban, as when a witness in a court case might get a plea deal in exchange for their cooperation and testimony.
“There is no such process for negotiating such kinds of things [in SafeSport arbitrations],” said Dan Hill, a spokesperson for the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
“When the Center has a finding and it goes to arbitration, that means the Center continues to stand by its finding. There’s a cost to arbitration, so it’s not like the Center wants to incur costs and waste resources just to go through the motions,” added Hill. “Individual matters are heard in different arbitration settings. You don’t take two different matters and put them in the same arbitration.”
With regard to the timing of suspensions and decisions, “if there’s any similar timing in two separate matters, it’s either that they got started around the same time, or somehow they’re related in the sense that one begat the other, or they’re coincidental,” Hill said.
“When people look for these kinds of things to divert attention, it’s unfortunate because the people who pay the price for that are the victims, who feel that even after a finding like this, they still get no justice,” Hill continued. “And there is nothing that ever repairs those wounds entirely, but the best you can ever hope for is someone hears you out and believes you, and then that belief is confirmed in an independent setting, which is what happened, and yet people continue to attack that.
“What the Center hopes for is when these moments, these high-profile things happen, that the focus isn’t on that, but rather how do we do better, what can we be doing?” he concluded. “And it’s not an indictment on the entire sport or every individual in the sport, it’s just that there’s plenty of room for growth and improvement in sport culture—in all sports, and this one’s no different.”
This article was updated to clarify that Soresi petitioned to have his USEF membership reinstated in 2008, and succeeded. He did not reapply for his judge’s card, which was revoked in 2007.