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Catawba College's role eyed in coach's sexual assault case

Ralph Wager Ralph Wager
SALISBURY, NC (The Charlotte Observer) -

A New York City man returned to North Carolina two summers ago to confront a popular soccer coach he claims sexually abused him when he was 9 years old.

The man drove out Independence Boulevard to a small townhouse off Village Lake Drive in southwest Charlotte. A weathered door mat announced: "Catawba Soccer Shop."

The home belongs to Ralph Wager, then a youth soccer instructor in Charlotte, who previously coached at Catawba College in Salisbury where the alleged abuse occurred 25 years earlier.

Unbeknownst to Wager, court documents show, his accuser carried a pocket recorder. Investigators were stationed nearby, listening in on electronic surveillance equipment.

The next day, they arrested Wager. They charged him with three counts of crime against nature, three of first-degree sexual offense and three of taking indecent liberties with a child from 1987 through 1989. Following news of the arrest, a second man contacted investigators. Wager was charged with three additional counts of taking indecent liberties with a child at Catawba in 1990.

The college, located 45 minutes north of Charlotte, is a private liberal arts campus with about 1,300 students. As in other criminal cases involving winning coaches and the institutions they worked for, the Wager case raises a broader issue than one man's guilt or innocence: Did Catawba, as court documents suggest, cover up possible wrongdoing to protect its reputation?

Nationally, there have been well-documented cover-ups of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America. It has also been a serious problem in colleges and schools, where coaches with influence over children have kept their jobs despite allegations.

Penn State University last year settled 26 cases with men who said the school failed to protect them from sexual abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, a nationally known defensive coordinator. In Gaston County two weeks ago, the district attorney faulted the local school system for not properly investigating complaints against wrestling coach Scott Goins, who was convicted of molesting three players.

"If you look at the paradigms, which are the Catholic Church and Penn State, those at the top thought it was their first priority to protect the organization," said New York attorney Marci Hamilton, an expert on institutional abuse.

"It's easy to run somebody out of an organization if they're not producing," Hamilton said. "But if they're winning, it's pretty ugly."

Catawba College administrators have declined to talk about Wager, except to say they cooperated with investigators and conducted an internal investigation.

Wager, who is 71, coached men's soccer there from 1983 to 1990. In reply to a certified letter from the Observer, he wrote: "Thank you for your consideration. I understand that you do mean well. Until after the trial I am restricted from talking with the media by my lawyers. I'm sure that you understand."

A trial date has not been set.

A winning coach

During his seven years at Catawba, Wager was revered on campus and in the town of Salisbury. People who knew him described him as easy-going and likeable, celebrated for transforming the men's soccer team from "a doormat" to third place in its district.

Three years after he was hired, he led the team to an improbable victory over a Division I giant: Catawba upset Duke University 2-1 the same year the Blue Devils won the 1986 national championship. Wager was voted southern regional Coach of the Year.

While at Catawba, he also developed a side interest, organizing soccer programs for young boys and girls and summer camps at the college.

Sylvia Chillcott was director of campus safety then. She remembers Wager as an outstanding coach – and for another reason. "During soccer camps, he would be massaging the shoulders of kids in public," she said. "It was a little too touchy feely. ... It wasn't something that was blatant, but there was enough that you would go, that just doesn't look right."

A mother complains

In 1987, the mother of the first accuser complained to college officials about Wager, according to court documents. She was dying of cancer, according to testimony, and had allowed Wager to watch over her son, who was on a swim team that practiced in the college pool.

Details of her complaint have not been divulged. Wager is now charged with performing sex acts on the boy in his office and at his on-campus apartment next to the P.E. center. The boy was 9 when the alleged abuse began, according to court documents, and 11 when it ended.

Because of the mother's complaints, Catawba officials banned Wager from the pool area while the Rowan Aquatic Club practiced, according to testimony and court documents. But the college allowed Wager to continue coaching and hosting summer camps.

Robert Knott, college provost in the 1980s, did not recall any formal allegation of sexual misconduct. He said the swim club made an informal request that Wager not be allowed near the pool when the club met.

The boy's mother eventually died from cancer and the alleged abuse resumed through 1989, according to court testimony. It's not clear from court records whether her death left the boy vulnerable again.

Forced to resign

In 1990, the mother of the second accuser complained to college officials, according to court testimony and documents. She worked at the college and brought her son to work with her. The alleged abuse occurred three times at Wager's on-campus apartment, court documents show.

Dennis Haglan had recently been hired as athletic director. He told the Observer that he was asked to investigate. Wager was so popular, Haglan said he hand-wrote his account rather than ask a secretary to type it. He held two clandestine meetings, the first with the accuser's mother.

"She wanted to meet in the middle of the recreation fields so nobody could see us," Haglan said. "She was very angry and she wanted him gone."

Haglan said he confronted Wager. He said Wager offered no defense, but claimed to practice a method of "healing hands" that helped athletes overcome injuries.

"I said, ‘You either resign or you will be fired,' " Haglan said.

According to court documents, Haglan said he then met before dawn with attorney Cecil Whitley. He said Whitley tendered a letter of resignation that would allow Wager to resign after the fall soccer season.

"I wasn't going for it," Haglan said in an interview.

In court documents, Whitley denied meeting with Haglan or writing the letter. Whitley acknowledged that Wager consulted him about "some allegations," but said he couldn't remember what the allegations were.

Wager resigned immediately, citing health and personal reasons. He was 47.

No one apparently went to police with the allegations. Haglan said he felt that would have been the job of the campus president or police. Court documents show that then-President Stephen Wurster knew of the allegations from a letter from Haglan. Wurster died in 1992.

"There was a feeling on campus that something was definitely wrong when he (Wager) quote-unquote resigned so quickly," said Chillcott, the former security director. She said she was never told of the allegations.

For more than 20 years, few people on campus knew.

College investigating

According to court documents, prosecutors plan to introduce evidence that the college tried to cover up the allegations.

"There are allegations that said officials of Catawba College failed to act, attempted to ‘cover up' the allegations and/or attempted to negotiate with individuals to avoid public disclosure," according to a document filed by Wager's defense. They argued that the evidence is unfairly prejudicial to Wager and should be barred from his trial.

Fred Corriher, a trustee at the time, said the board was not told. Corriher, who later served as college president for 10 years, said news of the charges in 2012 "came as a big surprise."

Asked whether college administrators should have reported the allegations, Corriher said, "Things have changed a lot since those days. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. You can say that, ‘Yes, they should have.' But again I don't know if it was something that could have been expected."

Current Catawba President Brien Lewis, who was hired in March 2012, said the college is cooperating with investigators. "Our attorneys with professional outside investigators have interviewed persons including current and former employees to determine what the College knew about Wager's alleged actions when he was an employee, when did it know it, and what did it do about it," Lewis said in a statement after Wager was charged.

The results of that 2012 internal investigation have not been made public.

Failure to report alleged abuse makes an institution complicit if subsequent abuse occurs, said Hamilton, author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children."

"Whoever in the chain learns about this information needs to get it out," she said. "If you don't, that perpetrator has been given the secrecy they need to get the next child."

The practice of alleged abusers being allowed to move on became so pervasive, a term was coined by experts to describe it: "Passing the trash."

Tonia Black-Gold, spokeswoman for Catawba College, noted that there have been no public reports of alleged abuse by Wager since he was allowed to resign.

"We just want to step back," she said, "let the judicial process take its course, and at some future point in time maybe there will be a comment from the college."

Abuse alleged on campus

After leaving Catawba in 1990, Wager went on to continued soccer prominence. He moved to Charlotte, where he created the Challenge soccer league and mentored hundreds of young boys and girls, most recently at Steele Creek Soccer Club in south Charlotte.

He was so respected for his soccer training skills, parents hired him to coach their children one-on-one.

Kathy Robinson, executive director of N.C. Youth Soccer, said that since 2006 the organization has conducted a national criminal search on all coaches, volunteers and board members. "I don't think anything showed up about him," she said. Wager has been indefinitely suspended from the organization, she said, pending the outcome of his trial.

Steele Creek Soccer Club also conducted a background search and found nothing about Wager, a club commissioner said.

In 2008, in a surprising move that has yet to be explained, Wager returned to Catawba as a hero.

He was inducted into the school's Sports Hall of Fame. The college saluted him as "one of the top soccer coaches of his era at any level." His photograph and a glowing description are still featured on Catawba's website.

No one contacted by the Observer could explain how that happened. "I don't know who made that decision," Black-Gold said.

Accusers come forward

Four years later, in 2012, the first of four accusers contacted the Rowan County Sheriff's Office.

In Pennsylvania, Jerry Sandusky was about to go on trial on dozens of charges of abusing young boys. A public debate over the case had spurred reforms in athletic programs across the United States, and alleged victims at other institutions were speaking out.

According to court testimony, Wager's first accuser discovered through an Internet search that Wager was still coaching young boys and girls. He told investigators he wanted to prevent other children from suffering.

He declined to comment when contacted by the Observer.

According to court testimony and documents, the man, now in his 30s, agreed to help gather possible evidence by confronting Wager and recording their conversation. On the recording, Wager appeared to apologize, a prosecutor said in court.

Wager said in an affidavit that a sheriff's deputy and an SBI agent interrogated him after his arrest. He said they asked whether he had a relationship – "something special, something unique" – with the accuser or whether he was "an adult who preys on all children."

"I don't want to ruin my whole life ... don't want to be in a position where I say something that actually puts me in jeopardy of ruining myself," Wager told them, according to the affidavit. "... Without counsel, I don't feel comfortable saying ... if I crossed the line."

In addition to the two men whose accusations led to charges against Wager, two other men spoke with authorities but no charges were filed, according to court testimony. One man talked with police in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester, where Wager coached at Thomas High School from the 1960s through the 1980s. Another man, who attended camp at Catawba, said Wager gave him "inappropriate" massages, according to court testimony.

Awaiting trial

Wager's criminal case was set for trial in July 2013. However, a few weeks before it was to start, a judge ruled that defense attorney Darrin Jordan had conflicts of interest.

Jordan's law partner is Whitley, the attorney who allegedly advocated on Wager's behalf in 1990. According to court documents, both men graduated from Catawba College and have contributed financially; Whitley's current wife, former wife and daughter have worked for the college.

"Their loyalties are divided between their client on the one hand, and Catawba College on the other," Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled.

Wager hired a new attorney, Jay White of Concord. But a year has passed and no new trial date has been set. Potential witnesses in the case said in interviews they are curious why not.

White did not respond to repeated interview requests. Rowan District Attorney Brandy Cook declined to comment.

As a condition for his release from jail on bond, Wager must wear an electronic monitoring device. Except to go to medical or court appointments, for the past two years he has been confined to within 50 yards of his townhouse.

MARIA DAVID CONTRIBUTED.

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