For more than five decades, George H. Morris was the king of equestrian sport, a former Olympic coach whose words — from how to ride to what breeches to wear — were gospel for riders at every level.
He had a magazine column in which he sometimes complimented but often eviscerated riding photos that equestrians submitted to him, and he even had an action figure that spouted his trademark snarky aphorisms.
That all came crashing down Monday when Mr. Morris was barred for life from all domestic and international equestrian sports after an investigation into “sexual misconduct involving a minor,” according to the United States Center for SafeSport, an independent body that investigates sexual misconduct in Olympic sports.
The lifetime ban of Mr. Morris, 81, a vaunted Olympian whose books on horsemanship are called bibles by riders, has roiled the equestrian community.
An “I Stand With George” Facebook page and hashtags, promoted by some of the sport’s best-known names and revered champions, have sprouted in his defense, as fury rages at SafeSport’s purposeful lack of transparency: To protect victims, SafeSport does not release details of its investigations, other than the result, according to Dan Hill, a spokesman for the nonprofit organization.
And yet even in the complicated world of sexual abuse investigation, the inquiry into allegations against Mr. Morris stands out for a variety of reasons. His stature within the sport is nearly unrivaled. While there is more than one victim, the only one to publicly identify himself is a convicted sex offender who struggled with substance abuse and initially came forward seven years ago, then recanted, then came forward once more. Another accuser is in prison. Many in the sport who have rallied to Mr. Morris’s defense have explained away his alleged behavior by saying times were different.
The SafeSport investigation involved more than one accuser, according to three people with knowledge of it who were not authorized to speak publicly about its details and who were unable to disclose the total number.
In addition, in interviews with dozens of former students and professionals who spoke with The New York Times, many said they had long been aware of Mr. Morris’s relationships with minors, though few agreed to speak publicly, afraid his status as equestrian kingmaker could wound their careers or chances to win ribbons in the horse show ring.
One of the few who spoke openly about Mr. Morris was a man who said his ex-boyfriend, now deceased, was a former student and victim. The man is currently serving a 20-year prison term after he faked being a plastic surgeon, resulting in the death of a woman he treated.
Mr. Morris has vowed to appeal SafeSport’s findings “regarding unsubstantiated charges for events that allegedly occurred between 1968 and 1972,” he said in a statement on Monday. “I have devoted my life to equestrian sport and the development of future riders, coaches and Olympians. Any allegations that suggest I have acted in ways that are harmful to any individual, the broader equestrian community, and sport that I love dearly are false and hurtful.”
Through his representative, Mr. Morris declined to be interviewed or to address any specific complaints about his relationships with riders.
The lifetime ban, which is reserved for the most egregious cases, according to SafeSport, comes on the heels of a wave of revelations about sexual abuse in the horse world. A 2018 Times investigation into Jimmy A. Williams revealed he molested several of the girls he trained over his nearly 40-year career. In June, after SafeSport barred Robert Gage, a trainer based in California, following an investigation into sexual misconduct, Mr. Gage killed himself.
The Times interviewed 53 former students, current top competitors and professionals, some of whom defended Mr. Morris and said they saw nothing untoward. Yet Mr. Morris’s relationships with minors were gossiped about from the warm-up ring to popular online message boards at Horse Show Diva and The Chronicle of the Horse.
Several people described Mr. Morris as consorting with underage students throughout his career, particularly during the 1970s. His behavior was waved away at the time as louche but acceptable, or the boys themselves were blamed or perceived as deliberately cultivating his attention for their gain.
Mr. Morris was born in New York City, but grew up in New Canaan, Conn., where he fell in love with horses, according to his memoir, “Unrelenting.” Mr. Morris came to national prominence when he won a team silver medal in Rome at the 1960 Summer Olympics. Later he became the United States equestrian team’s chef d’equipe — nothing less than its lodestar — leading the show jumpers to a team gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In his memoir, Mr. Morris reveals a wilder side, including trips to places like Studio 54 with students who were minors at the time. He estimated the number of his sexual partners to be “10,000 and counting!” though he does not specify the ages of those partners.
From his equestrian facilities on the East Coast, Mr. Morris churned out the country’s best riders during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, many of whom lived with him on site as working students, competing in the junior, or 18-and-under, division.
Michael D. Cintas, who coached equestrians for the United States Olympic modern pentathlon team in 2008, said he won a scholarship to train and live on Mr. Morris’s farm in 1964 when he was 16. Mr. Cintas, who said he was not abused, considers Mr. Morris a father figure. But he said that his coach’s reputation for having sexual relationships with boys he would scout and bring to train on the farm was common knowledge among students and barn staff.
“Many people saw what was going on, knew what was going on, and no one said anything,” said Mr. Cintas, who now acknowledges that what was taking place at the Morris farm was wrong.
The United States Equestrian Federation said it could act only if a claim were reported to it. None were received until 2012, Bill Moroney, the chief executive, said in an email responding to questions about Mr. Morris.
“We received one allegation against him in 2012, which was thoroughly investigated by an independent third-party who did not find sufficient evidence to proceed with disciplinary action against Mr. Morris,” Mr. Moroney wrote in the email. “That case remained open in the event additional information, evidence, or witness(es) came forward.”
Jonathan Soresi said he was in a relationship with Mr. Morris as a teenager and was one of the sources of the complaint that led to the coach’s lifetime ban. Mr. Soresi, who now operates a horse farm in Flemington, N.J., was a student of Mr. Morris’s during the 1970s and the first person to report Mr. Morris to SafeSport, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation.
ImageCreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times
In 2012, Mr. Soresi, now 63, at the urging of his brother, first reported to the federation a sexual relationship with Mr. Morris that began when he was a minor, according to emails reviewed by The Times.
Complicating the testimony is Mr. Soresi’s own criminal history as an adult: He is himself a registered sex offender. In 2007, he pleaded guilty to a felony count for possessing child pornography. Images were found on a laptop he dropped off to be repaired. He was sentenced to probation. He has also battled intravenous drug addiction.
In an interview, Mr. Soresi said he had long struggled with the sense that even as a child he was somehow complicit — Mr. Morris’s favorite students were lavished with the best horses, and with his time. Mr. Soresi, from a family unable to afford the high-priced sport, wanted both.
“There was an underlying hope that if I went along with this, I would get what I did not have, which was horses and education,” Mr. Soresi said. Mr. Soresi, who also went by Jonathan Devine, continued to work for Mr. Morris as an adult for several years, after the relationship ended.
Upon meeting with federation officials to discuss the relationship with Mr. Morris, in 2012, Mr. Soresi suddenly recanted. He said he was high on drugs at the time, intimidated by Mr. Morris’s status and afraid he would not be believed. Two years ago, sober and inspired by a wave of investigations spurred by top riders, he decided to report again, this time to SafeSport.
“The transgressions of my past do not invalidate the reality of what happened to me,” Mr. Soresi said.
On the same day it barred Mr. Morris, SafeSport also designated Mr. Soresi, who is a riding instructor, ineligible to participate in the sport because of his past criminal behavior involving a minor.
ImageCreditJill Krementz, All Rights Reserved
Another live-in student of Mr. Morris’s was Michael Hart, an elite rider Mr. Morris discovered in Minneapolis while teaching clinics there, according to “Unrelenting.” Mr. Morris brought Mr. Hart to his farm in New Jersey in about 1974, when he was 16 years old.
While he was coaching him, Mr. Morris and his student were in a sexual relationship, according to Mr. Hart’s ex-boyfriend, Dean Faiello, an inmate at the Cayuga Correctional Facility in Moravia, N.Y., where he is serving a 20-year prison term after pleading guilty to assault in the first degree and practicing medicine without a license. Mr. Faiello said Mr. Hart spoke of his relationship with Mr. Morris with pride, as though he had seduced one of the giants of equestrian sport when he was just a boy.
“It was common knowledge in the world that George was having this affair with Michael Hart, who was a junior,” said Michael Sasso, another student at that time who said he was not abused. “That was the ’70s. Those things were a lot looser around all that stuff.”
For Michael Hart Sr., Mr. Hart’s father, Mr. Morris’s life suspension is meaningless for his son. Once a promising young rider when his parents sent him to live and train with the equestrian great, Mr. Hart was later jailed for drug dealing and died in 1995 of AIDS-related illnesses at 37.
“Michael was dazzled by him,” his father said, “and to us we thought, ‘This is an opportunity.’ We had no idea. It’s late, and it’s feeble justice.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.
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SOURCE : https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/sports/george-morris.html