Suit Filed Against Harvard for Swim Coach's Alleged Sexual Abuse in 1970s

Courtesy of Harvard Archives

Former Harvard swimming coach Benjamin Merritt poses for a picture in 1959. Two men have now accused Merritt of sexually abusing them when they were teenagers in the late 1960s.

Leveling charges that he was sexually abused by a Harvard swim coach and that the University misled him about his options for legal recourse, a Florida man filed a lawsuit against the University on Wednesday.

Stephen M. Embry, 55, claimed in the eight-page complaint that he was abused from the ages of 12 to 14 by Benjamin H. Merritt, an assistant coach from 1957 to 1972. He is the second man to claim abuse by Merritt. Months after the first complaint was made 16 years ago—by Scott Hughson, who claimed Merritt abused him when he was a teenager in the 1960s—Merritt committed suicide. That case was eventually settled.

The allegations come in the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s 45 child sex-abuse convictions on June 22, and the Penn State football scandal that led to the firing of long-time head coach Joe Paterno and a number of other high-ranking Penn State officials.

In the suit, Embry claimed that Merritt promised to train him because the Harvard coach told Embry that he had Olympic potential. During this period of training, Merritt allegedly raped and took nude photographs of Embry at the Harvard pool and in the locker room and showers.

Embry also claimed that other boys were with him during the assaults and he witnessed their abuse as well, though Embry is not presently in contact with any of the other alleged victims, according to Carmen Durso, Embry’s lawyer. Durso also said that Embry does not have any of the nude photographs.

In the suit, Embry has charged that Harvard University either knew or should have known about Merritt’s actions and is therefore also responsible for the damages caused.

“We have allegations from four people that this guy was teaching them to swim at a Harvard facility even though they weren’t Harvard students during a period of time that was seven years,” Durso said. “He was not taking these kids in there in the middle of night and sneaking in without turning the lights on; he was doing this very openly. So for seven years, he’s got kids who are not students there.

“Either Harvard had a program under which this was being done or Harvard assented to him being able to do this. I find it hard to believe that a coach could do this without someone at Harvard saying ‘Yeah, it is okay.’”

The abusive figure described in the court documents is not the one that some former Harvard swimmers and coaches remember.

Don Gambril took over as the head coach of Harvard swimming in 1971, overlapping with Merritt for one season. Merritt left the following year to coach at Newton North High School.

“It shocks me—of course something like that would shock you,” Gambril said. “I know a lot of the swimmers were close to him. I know a lot of them said they used to go home with him on weekends as freshmen. They were homesick and he’d take them home and things. But never was anything like this brought to my attention.”

Several students at the time had no recollection of those weekend trips.

“I don’t recall that ever happening, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t,” Paul F. Horwitz ’72 said.

According to his lawyer, Embry remembers seeing two other coaches present during the abuse. Gambril maintains that he never saw Merritt at the pool at odd hours or with children unaffiliated with Harvard.

Bill Brooks, the head coach before Gambril, and former diving coach Harold Miroff, who coached with Merritt under Brooks, are deceased.