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Former Pa. education official banned from U.S. rowing over 1981 sexual misconduct

“The totality of the circumstances shows a pattern of behavior on Mr. Wittig’s part,” the report said. Larry Wittig has denied any sexual misconduct and appealed SafeSport’s decision.

Annette DeMichele and Larry Wittig on a New Jersey beach in the early 1980s.
Annette DeMichele and Larry Wittig on a New Jersey beach in the early 1980s.Read moreCourtesy Annette DeMichele

The nonprofit agency dedicated to investigating sexual misconduct in U.S. sports has banned a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Education from national rowing activities after its independent investigation found he had sexual contact with two girls he coached in 1981 — claims brought to light by The Inquirer in 2017.

In a report it finalized late last month, the U.S. Center for SafeSport said it determined that Larry Wittig engaged in sexual activity, including intercourse, with one athlete while she was 17 and that he “completed nonconsensual touching” with another rower when she was also 17. Both had met Wittig when he coached the girls’ rowing team at Harriton High School in Rosemont.

“The totality of the circumstances shows a pattern of behavior on Mr. Wittig’s part,” the report said. “It is clear, based on the evidence, that Mr. Wittig was unable or unwilling to establish appropriate boundaries with minor female athletes he coached and attempted to and did in fact engage in sexual contact with two of them.”

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer, reflects the first time an independent body has examined the accusations against Wittig, a Schuylkill County resident who spent 16 years on the state Board of Education and remains the president of the Tamaqua Area School Board, on which he has served since 1995. The probe was based on interviews with Wittig, his two accusers, and witnesses named by the women.

Wittig has denied any sexual misconduct and appealed SafeSport’s decision. “It is my belief that the results of this appeal will provide a very different result or I would not subject my family, friends, or myself to this public scrutiny,” he said in a brief interview Tuesday.

SafeSport’s decision means Wittig, who rowed crew as a student at Drexel University and was a member of the famed Vesper Boat Club on Boathouse Row, is permanently barred from any activities under USRowing, the national body that governs the sport and some competitions. A representative for Vesper Boat Club confirmed that Wittig is no longer a member.

» READ MORE: Our original investigation: Women say ex-chairman of Pennsylvania Board of Education pursued them sexually as teens

SafeSport, which opened in 2017, has investigated misconduct in various Olympic sports, banning ex-USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar from future participation and suspending a Pennsylvania State University assistant fencing coach accused of sexually harassing another coach. The center has authority over about 14 million athletes in national teams and local clubs and has resolved more than 2,200 matters, according to a spokesperson.

SafeSport’s investigative process has also been the subject of criticism as some coaches have evaded suspensions or sanctions to return to their sports. Controversy has surrounded recent investigations into waterskiing star Nate Smith, Olympic tae kwon do coach Jean Lopez, and NCAA men’s volleyball coach Charlie Wade, who were all able to continue coaching or competing.

SafeSport began its investigation into Wittig in February 2018, prompted by an anonymous report that cited the Inquirer article. The center said investigators received no reports of alleged misconduct by Wittig that occurred later than 1981.

The center does not release details of its investigations, but its website shows the results of disciplinary actions. The determination against Wittig, 70, came after he sought this year to rejoin USRowing, putting him again under SafeSport’s jurisdiction. He said he wanted to compete at the Masters level in the age 70-74 category.

“I want to be very clear that I believe the investigation by SafeSport was thorough and fair. However, none of the testimony was taken under oath or in person,” Wittig told The Inquirer. His appeal, he said, “is all about my ability to compete in a sport in order to maintain health at age 70 and beyond.”

Multiple allegations

Wittig was the girls’ rowing coach at Harriton High School in 1981, when his two accusers were seniors on the team. Early that summer, he coached them in the U.S. Nationals competition, and they said Wittig socialized with them. Both women told SafeSport investigators that Wittig groped their genitals on separate occasions that summer.

One of the women, Annette DeMichele, said that she and Wittig became involved in a yearlong sexual and romantic relationship later that summer. She was 17 and Wittig was 32 and married. It continued that fall when she entered the University of Pennsylvania and Wittig became a rowing coach there.

Wittig and DeMichele broke up in 1982 after Wittig’s then-wife became pregnant; in 1984, Wittig resigned from coaching at Penn after the university began investigating his contact with DeMichele.

According to the SafeSport report and her 2017 interview with The Inquirer, DeMichele said the relationship isolated and scarred her, disrupting her college experience and causing her to develop unhealthy habits around her weight. She said it felt consensual at the time but she came to believe Wittig had coerced her due to the age and power difference between them.

“The only person I had was him,” DeMichele told The Inquirer two years ago. “I was so isolated, by design. By what this relationship was, and because it had to be secret.”

Two other women told SafeSport investigators they remembered being around Wittig along with one or both of the other girls and described him as frequently making sexual jokes or innuendo, which he denied.

Both DeMichele and the other woman interviewed by SafeSport had described their allegations against Wittig in the 2017 Inquirer story, and another woman said at the time that Wittig had engaged her in a two-year relationship that began when she was 16 and he was 29. That claim was not part of the center’s investigation.

‘What were the rules?’

During his interview with investigators, Wittig denied making sexual advances toward any athletes and denied the groping incidents described by each woman, the SafeSport report said. He admitted a long-term sexual relationship with DeMichele but said he never coerced her.

“What were the rules? I had sex with a 17-year-old for three months before she turned 18,” Wittig said, according to SafeSport documents, asking whether that automatically made him guilty. He described himself as “head over heels in love” with DeMichele and said she had control in their relationship. He told investigators that their relationship began only after she initiated it.

That contradicted Wittig’s 2017 assertion to The Inquirer in which he “categorically denied” the women’s allegations, including DeMichele’s claim. He later told a Tamaqua-area newspaper that he did have sex with DeMichele but that it was not “an ongoing relationship” as she contended.

He also told SafeSport investigators he had denied the allegations to The Inquirer on the advice of his attorney at the time. “ ‘I just denied, denied, denied because I was completely out of my element,’ ” the SafeSport report quotes him as saying.

Wittig resigned from the state Board of Education after being asked about the allegations in 2017 by an Inquirer reporter. On the day the story was published, he was also removed from the president’s leadership council at Drexel and was asked to resign from the board of trustees at Philadelphia University-Thomas Jefferson University.

He remained president of the Tamaqua Area School Board and is asking voters for another term in next month’s election.