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Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers


Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers

Apr 20, 2024 | 12:52 pm ET
By Tim Sullivan
Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers
The pool at the University of Kentucky's Lancaster Aquatic Center. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Jamie Lucke)

The first red flag was raised as soon as Lars Jorgensen was hired.

On June 20, 2012, within hours of news breaking that Jorgensen had joined the University of Kentucky swimming program as an associate head coach, a former assistant coach at the University of Toledo messaged Kentucky head coach Gary Conelly and athletic director Mitch Barnhart with urgent, unambiguous warnings about their new employee.

Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers
Lars Jorgensen (University of Kentucky Athletics)

“I coached at Toledo for a year then had to run away as fast as I could,” Mark Howard wrote, according to court filings. “While there, a former Toledo swimmer made it known to me about a sexual relationship she had with Lars before she had graduated. I confronted Lars about it, and made it very clear that he stay away from any Toledo swimmers for as long as he was alive. Had I known he was interviewing with Kentucky I certainly would have called. I wish you the best and hope he does not bring down your University. This is no joke at all and I cannot stomach the fact that he will be coaching women again.”

That Howard’s message was received was confirmed by Conelly’s concerned response the following day and is included in court filings, but the apparent failure to look further or to appreciate the institutional peril posed by an alleged sexual predator has exposed the university to significant liability and could carry career-threatening consequences for some of its administrators.

A lawsuit filed April 12 by a pair of former UK swimmers and coaches accuses Jorgensen of recurring sexual abuse and repeated rape and the university of “complicity and deliberate indifference” to “credible reports” of Jorgensen’s inappropriate sexual relationships and sexual assaults.

It accuses Barnhart, the UK athletic director, of intentionally concealing serious allegations against Jorgensen; Conelly, the former head coach, of circumventing university policy for reporting complaints of sexual harassment and assault, and UK’s Title IX office of discouraging complaints and failing to take appropriate action in response to Jorgensen’s alleged misdeeds.

Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers
Mitch Barnhart (University of Kentucky)

Jorgensen spent 11 years at UK, the last 10 as the head coach of its swimming and diving program, before resigning last June after being suspended, ostensibly for NCAA infractions related to excessive time demands on athletes. UK spokeswoman Kristi Willett told Kentucky Lantern both the suspension and Jorgensen’s resignation were prompted by  compliance issues and that “many” of the sexual abuse claims in the lawsuit were not previously known to the university.

Confronted with the lawsuit’s allegations in an interview with The Athletic, Jorgensen insisted “none of that is true.” His attorney, Greg Anderson, told the Lexington Herald-Leader the case has nothing to do with Jorgensen’s private life and is, instead, a reflection “of NCAA woke philosophy” and Jorgensen’s support of Riley Gaines, a former UK swimmer and vocal opponent of trans women competing in women’s sports.

Briggs Alexander, one of the plaintiffs in the case, is a former team captain and coach who competed as Bridgette Alexander at UK from 2014-18, and has since transitioned to a transgender man. The other plaintiff, another former UK swimmer and coach, is identified in the suit as Jane Doe.

Alexander and a third swimmer, identified as Jane Doe 2, allege being raped by Jorgensen — Jane Doe 2 following a 2013 Christmas party, Alexander on four occasions from 2019 through 2021. The other Jane Doe reported being sexually assaulted by the coach.

Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers
Harry M. Lancaster Aquatic Center, University of Kentucky. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Jamie Lucke)

“He didn’t rape anybody,” Anderson said, according to the Herald-Leader. “He never assaulted anyone. He never battered anyone. He didn’t defame anyone. He never mistreated anyone. He drove his swimmers to be the best that they could. And the facts here do not add up in any way, shape or form.”

Rachael Denhollander, a Louisville-based attorney best known for being the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse in a case that has resulted in nearly $1 billion in settlements, has been working with the plaintiffs for nearly a year. She’s not the lead attorney but would share in a potential settlement. In an interview, she described Anderson’s assertions as “an absurdity in the highest degree.”

“Warnings about Lars’ predatory sexual behavior (were) received multiple times by UK for years prior to the controversy regarding (trans athletes competing in) women’s sports, with the first coming nearly a decade prior,” she told the Lantern, echoing information contained in the complaint. “All three survivors had disclosed their violent abuse to unconnected individuals prior to speaking publicly. Attempting to dismiss patterned rape allegations from multiple victims by alleging a woke conspiracy is absolute nonsense.”

Anderson did not immediately respond to interview requests left at his Jacksonville, Florida, law office. Efforts to reach Jorgensen and Conelly for comment were unsuccessful. Barnhart declined comment on the suit when approached last Sunday, citing the ongoing litigation. 

Willett said the university police department has been contacted about the allegations and “is in the process of assessing the information received.”

Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers
Rachael Denhollander

“We are distressed to hear the disturbing allegations of sexual assault and criminal behavior by a former University of Kentucky employee,” Willett said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “No one should be subject to the kind of abuse described in the civil lawsuit filed Friday. . .

“Our top priority is the health and safety of our students and employees. We have no tolerance for harm, harassment or abuse.”

Denhollander has difficulty reconciling those professed priorities with the issues raised by the plaintiffs or the warnings communicated from other campuses during Jorgensen’s tenure.

“Words cost nothing,” she said. “Actions tell everything.”

“I thought I could trust them,” Alexander said during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday. “I disclosed my abuse and thought it was being taken care of. And months went by and I never heard anything back. So I reached out. I was just repeatedly discouraged and vigorously discouraged to not come forward and not publish this reporting. That’s what’s hurting me the most at this moment.

“Title IX offices are there to protect student-athletes. When our coaches aren’t protecting us in the situation (Jorgensen) wasn’t, we should have been able to trust the Title IX office and none of us could.”

The lawsuit alleges that UK’s Title IX office received warnings about Jorgensen in 2015 or 2016 and that it was alerted in August 2019 to two complaints against him. Alexander contacted UK’s Title IX office in May 2023, the lawsuit says, a year after resigning as assistant coach and the month before Jorgensen resigned.

In response to a request to interview UK’s Title IX staff members and a subsequent list of submitted questions, Willett said “many of the questions you are asking are questions that the University will answer when it responds to the lawsuit at the appropriate time.”  

In the interview, Denhollander said she is aware of four instances — also alleged in the lawsuit — during Jorgensen’s first two years on the job in which UK was either directly alerted to his alleged  improprieties or could have learned of the coach’s sexual relationship with a swimmer he supervised at Toledo through publicity surrounding a 2014 wrongful termination case involving that school’s former softball coach, Tarrah Beyster.

“If you take sexual misconduct seriously, that’s something you’re going to look at and say, ‘This is something I need to take seriously,’ especially if you’ve heard it before,’” Denhollander said.

Warnings ignored, says sex abuse lawsuit filed by former University of Kentucky swimmers
Entrance to the University of Kentucky aquatic center. (Kentucky Lantnern photo by Jamie Lucke)

“There were choices made to ignore red flags, to ignore outright warnings, to discourage survivors from reporting. There were breakdowns in the culture. There were breakdowns in the policies, in the structure of the organization.”

The pattern she perceives is all too familiar.

In blowing the whistle on Larry Nassar, Denhollander prompted scores of other victims to come forward at enormous expense to the institutions for which he had worked. Michigan State University agreed to pay $500 million in settlements to Nassar’s victims; USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee another $380 million. According to multiple reports, the U.S. Department of Justice is in the final stages of an agreement that would pay another $100 million to victims for the FBI’s failures in investigating the case.

Additionally, Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon and the entire board of USA Gymnastics resigned under pressure. The price of negligence has been steep.

Since the Nassar settlements involved hundreds of individuals and the Kentucky case currently includes only two plaintiffs, the university’s potential costs are likely much lower. Still, Megan Bonnani, the lead attorney representing Alexander and Jane Doe, says, “We are convinced and have reason to believe that there are more victims and there are witnesses out there.” Jane Doe 2 is not a party to the suit.

University policy discourages but does not prohibit consensual sexual relationships between a supervisor and a subordinate, but requires those relationships be reported to superiors when one party is responsible for evaluating the performance of the other. “The existence of a power differential may restrict the less powerful individual’s freedom to participate willingly in the relationship,” says UK’s ethical principles and code of conduct.

“No records exist of Jorgensen reporting any consensual relationship at any time with people he supervised,” Willett said.

To the extent Jorgensen’s advances were non-consensual, criminal charges could result. That the plaintiffs had not shared their allegations with law enforcement before filing their civil action is consistent with national trends. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), roughly 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported. Of those, only 28 result in conviction and 25 in incarceration.

Going public has its perils, not least among them having to relive disturbing experiences.

“I read my own story and I can’t believe that that happened to me,” Briggs Alexander said. “And I think it’s really important that there are different outlets for people to go to and not just the police, because you never know what could happen to someone if something is reported to police. I didn’t know if I was going to be in danger or taken seriously.”

Alexander v. University of Kentucky

UK Swim Lawsuit (13)