A worker cleans windows and doors at B.C. Place stadium, where Major League Soccer's Vancouver Whitecaps play their home games, in Vancouver, on Thursday, March 12, 2020. A former coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer's women's teams has been charged with sexual offences involving four people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Former Whitecaps, Canadian women’s soccer coach charged with sexual offences

Former Whitecaps, Canadian women’s soccer coach charged with sexual offences

VANCOUVER — A former coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer’s women’s teams has been charged with sexual offences involving four people.

The B.C. Prosecution Service said in a statement that Bob Birarda is facing six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault and one count of child luring.

The alleged offences occurred in North Vancouver, Burnaby and West Vancouver between January 1988 and March 25, 2008.

More than a dozen women who played for the Whitecaps and were part of Canada’s under-20 talent pool around 2008 have come forward to allege Birarda, a former coach for both squads, acted inappropriately with members of the team.

The allegations include rubbing a player’s thigh, sending players sexual text messages, making lewd comments and bullying young women who ignored or spoke out against his behaviour.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Birarda made his first appearance in court Wednesday and has been released from custody under strict conditions. His case is scheduled to be back in court on Jan. 28.

Birarda was dismissed by both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer in October 2008.

Former player Ciara McCormack brought the allegations to public attention with a blog post in February 2019, saying neither the Whitecaps nor Canada Soccer adequately investigated when she complained about Birarda’s behaviour.

The revelations prompted fans to walk out of several Whitecaps games that spring.

Hearing that charges had been laid against her former coach came as a surprise, McCormack told The Canadian Press Thursday.

“It’s been such a long road to get to where we are,” she said, adding that she got emotional when she heard the news.

“I feel like the system failed us the whole way through. So to actually see a system actually work and charges actually happen, I think it’s a bit of a relief.”

The charges empower the people who came forward with stories of harassment and give them a voice, McCormack said.

“There’s a lot of healing that comes with your voice being validated and your experience being validated,” she said.

Andrea Neil, one of Canada’s most decorated soccer stars, issued a statement in March 2019 saying she began hearing “rumours and stories” about trouble within the 2008 U20 squad shortly after her time with the national team ended.

“What happened in 2008 was not right. People got emotionally hurt, and all of us have a responsibility to do something about that,” she said.

Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster issued a statement Thursday saying the charges reinforce the harm that was done to women in the club’s program between 2006 and 2008.

“We should have been better, and for that we are sorry,” the statement said.

Canada Soccer did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Jeff Mallett, co-owner of the team, previously issued an apology to the women involved in May 2019 and thanked them for coming forward.

Last year, the Toronto-based Sport Law & Strategy Group completed a third-party review of how the Whitecaps handled the complaints, noting there was a “lack of effective communication with the players.”

The group’s report also noted that many recommendations as to what the club could have done differently at the time had “already been addressed and are reflected in current policies and practices.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2020.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had the incorrect date of Ciara McCormack’s blog post.