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Review says Canada Soccer mishandled sexual harassment allegations against coach

Allegations against B.C. coach and convicted sex offender Bob Birarda were mishandled

An independent review has concluded that Canada Soccer “mishandled” sexual harassment allegations in 2008 against then under-20 women’s coach Bob Birarda, who is currently awaiting sentencing on sexual assault charges.

The 125-page report by McLaren Global Sport Solution, commissioned by Canada Soccer, paints a picture of a governing body “described by many as being dysfunctional and inefficient,” with “significant leadership upheaval and transition at the highest levels” in 2007 and 2008.

It concludes a “complete lack of familiarity” with the harassment policy amongst Canada Soccer senior officials in 2008 and that “harassment was not a priority issue amongst the senior CSA (Canadian Soccer Association) leadership team” at the time.

It also says there was a lack of oversight over the women’s under-20 team and that Canada Soccer did not follow its own harassment policy.

And it suggested that Canada Soccer just wanted the issue to go away at the time.

“The CSA press release that characterized Birarda’s departure (in 2008) as being in the mutual interest of both parties without so much as addressing the harassment was a gross mischaracterization of the circumstances and failed the victims of the harassment, their teammates, and the organization as a whole,” the report says.

“The leaders of Canada Soccer acknowledged to the IRT (independent review team) that mistakes were made in how the Birarda complaint process was managed and communicated including regrets that “we had taken a silent position on this,” it added.

With virtually no oversight, the review says Birarda “abused his position of power to groom, intimidate, threaten, and sexually harass certain players.”

“Birarda’s behaviour went unchecked because of the siloed nature of the U-20 WNT in Vancouver, poor comprehension of harassment policies and reporting procedures amongst the players on the team, and Birarda’s facade. He was considered ‘untouchable’ because of his power and influence over the players.”

The review looked into Canada Soccer’s handling of Birarda, who doubled as a women’s Vancouver Whitecaps and national youth team coach.

Birarda is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in February to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching while in a position of authority. A sentencing hearing is expected to resume in September.

The charges, which involve four teenage soccer players coached by Birarda, span 20 years between 1988 and 2008. Birarda left both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer in October 2008.

The McLaren report says with little direction or oversight, Birarda ran the team “as he saw fit,” and engaged “in what should have been identified by CSA as highly questionable if not flatly proscribed relationships, communications, and activities with his female players.”

Given the young age and vulnerability of players on the under-20 Canada roster, “educating and training national team players and staff about harassment issues should have been a greater priority for the CSA,” the report said.

While as many as 25 players listed on a 2008 roster for the Whitecaps women’s team were affiliated with the U-20 national side, there was no formal agreement between Vancouver and Canada Soccer.

And within Canada Soccer there appeared to be confusion over who supervised Birarda.

The men’s under-20 team coach reported to a technical director, who reported to the general secretary. However the women’s U-20 team did not have a technical director and “all supervisory authority — on paper — rested with the WNT (women’s national team) head coach.”

The review concluded this lack of reporting “was also a product of the CSA’s perceived, if not established, lack of interest and oversight into the U-20 WNT at the time.” Even Pellerud, the senior women’s team coach at the time, disputes that he supervised Birarda.

That lack of interest in the youth team was shown by the fact most Canada Soccer executives and staff members “could not recall or were unfamiliar with the hiring process for Bob Birarda. The IRT received conflicting accounts of who hired Birarda.”

McLaren’s brief in this case was to review “the institutional response and processes of” Canada Soccer with respect the departure of Birarda in 2008. It was also tasked with conducting a “review of all current safe sport and related policies to identify gaps that may require action.”

“This review spells out in black and white how the CSA mishandled the 2008 harassment allegations. It provides a timeline of actions, details how policies were not followed, and outlines a pattern of not documenting decisions that has ultimately resulted in frustration and anger by players that continues today,” McLaren wrote.

In 2008, Canada Soccer announced a “mutual parting of ways” with Birarda despite a vote by its executive committee to terminate Birarda following the recommendation of the investigator at the time that Birarda should no longer be coaching, the report said.

“By not following through with the vote to terminate Birarda for cause, the CSA did a disservice to the players by not acknowledging his harassment as the reason for his removal,” McLaren wrote. “There was no acknowledgment of the complaints or their impact on the players.

“Moreover, failure to terminate Birarda allowed him to continue coaching, putting other players at potential risk.”

The review drew on 28 interviews including 23 current and former Canada Soccer officials. While 23 former players were invited to participate, only three consented to interviews. The report said those interviews “corroborated other witness accounts and public statements made by former players in 2019.”

The reluctance by former under-20 women’s team players to participate was the result of several factors, according to the review, “including the passage of time and a complete lack of trust in Canada Soccer.”

Official interviews included former Canada Soccer general secretary Peter Montopoli. who had just taken up his position in 2008, Pellerud and CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, who was chair of the national teams committee in 2008.

Allegations against Birarda surfaced in May and September 2008.

The Whitecaps hired Anne Chopra, an ombudsperson from the Law Society of British Columbia, to investigate the May complaint. Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps jointly hired Chopra to investigate the second complaint.

Following the May probe, the ombudsperson recommended that Birarda complete sensitivity training. Canada Soccer’s general secretary told Pellerud that told “Birarda was his concern and that he was responsible to ensure that such behaviour would not reoccur.”

“There was no additional follow-up between the CSA and players on the U-20 WNT as it concerned the May complaints; the CSA did not make any support mechanisms available to players on the team, nor did they take the opportunity to remind players of the rules and regulations governing harassment or raise any awareness regarding players’ rights in the event of any continued harassment by Birarda,” the McLaren report said.

It appears Canada Soccer did little in the wake of the May 2008 complaint other than have a senior executive instruct Pellerud to “ensure that this does not happen again.”

Canada Soccer also failed to ensure that Birarda completed “any of the undertakings he had committed to as remedial actions” and did not educate the U-20 players on the rights and processes available to them under the existing harassment policy.

The September investigation was “limited,” according to the review with the time spent on the “player component” of the probe lasting between 8 1/2 and 17 hours.

“Most players on the U-20 WNT were not asked or invited to participate in the investigation. There is no written record of the investigation including the terms of reference, final report, and recommendations,” the report said.

The ombudsman found “a continuing pattern of harassing emails and a power imbalance between Birarda and the players and recommended that Birarda should no longer be coaching the U-20 WNT.”

The September probe came after former player Andrea Neil heard allegations and took them to a high-performance coach at Canada Soccer.

“Although the CSA acted quickly in investigating the concerns brought forward by Neil to Even Pellerud, their haste in doing has fuelled skepticism amongst players and allegations of a cover-up. The IRT has no evidence to support allegations of a cover-up by anyone associated with Canada Soccer,” the report says.

Members of Canada Soccer’s executive committee at the time said the ombudsman’s “verbal recommendations” were the basis for their vote to terminate Birarda. That vote, however, was not documented in any meeting minutes of the executive committee or board of directors.

A letter of suspension was issued to Birarda by the CSA and the Whitecaps on Oct. 3. Five days later, following meetings between the Whitecaps, CSA, Birarda, and their lawyers, Birarda submitted a letter of resignation saying he was stepping aside by “mutual agreement.”

“Although the executive committee acted swiftly to provisionally suspend Birarda and voted to terminate him, they allowed him the opportunity to resign from his position without acknowledging his harassment,” the report said.

While the report says Canada Soccer has “clearly made noteworthy progress since 2008 to improve its policies and procedures concerning harassment,” it makes 38 recommendations ranging from governance to code of conduct and player relationships.

Canada Soccer has retained ITP Sport and Recreation, a safe sport consulting and program agency co-founded by former Olympian Allison Forsyth, to help implement the McLaren recommendations.

The McLaren Group is also analyzing Gymnastics Canada’s national safe sport policies and procedures after calls for an independent investigation into the sport.

Gymnastics was among several sports that complained to Canada’s Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge about toxic cultures and maltreatment in their sport in what St-Onge has called a safe sport “crisis.”

Hockey Canada is also under the spotlight, with investigations launched into two alleged cases of sexual misconduct and how the governing body used its funds to address the cases.

Major League Soccer is conducting its own investigation into how the Whitecaps handled harassment allegations related to Birarda.

— Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press