Top Equestrians Accused of Sex Abuse in Lawsuits

The equestrian world’s biggest kingmaker, George Morris, an Olympian who was barred for life from the sport one year ago, is now facing lawsuits by two people who said he raped them as teenagers

The suits were filed Wednesday in New York, one year to the day after Morris, a former United States Olympic team coach who remained even into his 80s one of show jumping’s biggest luminaries, was barred by the United States Equestrian Federation. The ban followed an investigation by the United States Center for SafeSport, an independent body that investigates sexual misconduct in Olympic sports, into allegations that he sexually abused minors decades ago.

Jimmy Williams, a California riding coach who minted Olympians and died in 1993, was also part of a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles. The equestrian federation and the riding academy where he was employed for decades were sued by a woman who said Williams had sexually assaulted her from the ages of 12 to 17. In a symbolic move, Williams was recorded as barred from the federation in 2018 after an investigation by The New York Times revealed accusations by nearly a dozen women, including the Olympian Anne Kursinski, that he had preyed upon them as girls.

The plaintiffs in the Morris lawsuits, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, are two of the men who initially came forward to SafeSport, prompting its investigation that led to the barring of Morris, who won a silver medal as a show jumper in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, and went on to coach the United States Olympic team and most recently the Brazilian team.

Bill Moroney, the chief executive of the United States Equestrian Federation, issued a statement declining to comment directly on the suits but making some of the strongest comments to date on Morris.

“The actions of George Morris are reprehensible and those he abused should never have had to endure his unconscionable and despicable behavior,’’ he said. “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.’’

Morris did not answer a message seeking for comment.

In one of the lawsuits, Jonathan Soresi, a New Jersey horse trainer who said he was in a sexual relationship with Morris when he was 17 and Morris was in his 30s, said that Morris assaulted him as his student in a midtown Manhattan hotel after a show jumping competition at Madison Square Garden. Soresi first reported Morris to the federation in 2012, but recanted; a former drug user, and himself a registered sex offender for possessing child pornography, Soresi said in an interview that he was high at the time and afraid he would not be believed.

The other plaintiff is not named, listed only in the lawsuit as A.G.1 Doe. He is a prominent trainer and show jumper in his 50s who said that Morris brutally raped him in 1978 in a hotel in the Hamptons when he was 17 years old after an exhibition at the prestigious Topping Riding Club in Sagaponack, on Long Island. Topping is also named in his lawsuit and did not answer a request for comment.

In an interview, the man, who has never before publicly spoken about the accusation, said that part of his decision to come forward was a backlash in the equestrian community to Morris’s ban: Some supporters claimed the boys sought Morris’s sexual attentions to get ahead in the sport — favorite students were lavished with better horses and his training. A number of the sport’s most revered champions furiously defended Morris, raging at SafeSport’s purposeful lack of transparency: To protect victims, it does not divulge any details of its investigations beyond the outcome, according to Dan Hill, a spokesman for the nonprofit organization. (Morris appealed the punishment, but the ban was upheld by an independent arbiter.)

The man said that after his identity as one of Morris’s accusers had emerged last year, some people in the sport shunned him at horse shows. “That is revictimization,” he said. “They look away from me because I am one of the people responsible for the icon of their industry being held accountable for the things he’s done.”

“If people would just pause for a moment and think, how they would want this handled if they had been a victim? If it was a sibling of theirs that had been abused? Or a child of theirs that had been abused?” the man continued. “I think they would have a very different perspective.”

All of the lawsuits target the equestrian federation for what the plaintiffs claim was a culture of turning a blind eye to the abuse by Morris and Williams — both of whose behavior was long an open secret in their decades of prominence in the tight-knit sport.

“These institutions should question these totalitarian men, to protect kids from the predator,” Gigi Gaston, a film director who is suing Flintridge Riding Academy, in La Cañada Flintridge outside Los Angeles, for the abuse by Williams she said she endured. The academy employed Williams for 42 years — even after at least one teenage rider told the club he had sexually assaulted her. The academy did not answer a request for comment.

“But they protected them; their image was more important than protecting us,” Gaston said. “Image shouldn’t be more important than the safety of a child.”

The lawsuits, which seek financial damages, were able to go forward because of two newly enacted laws in New York and California that temporarily suspend the time limits for adults to bring claims for abuse they suffered as children.

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