An independent review has concluded that Canada Soccer “mishandled” sexual harassment allegations in 2008 against women’s Under-20 coach Bob Birarda, who is currently awaiting sentencing for sexual assault.
McLaren Global Sport Solution’s 125-page report, commissioned by Canada Soccer, paints a picture of a governing body ‘described by many as dysfunctional and ineffective’, with ‘significant leadership disruption and transition at the highest levels’ in 2007 and 2008. .
He concludes that there was a “complete lack of familiarity” with the harassment policy among senior officials at Canada Soccer in 2008 and that “harassment was not a priority issue among the senior management team of the CSA (Canadian Association soccer)” at the time.
He 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 that suggested Canada Soccer just wanted the problem gone at the time.
“The CSA press release which characterized Birarda’s departure (in 2008) as being in the mutual interest of both parties without even addressing the harassment was a crude description of the circumstances and let down the victims of the harassment, their teammates and the organization as a whole,” the report said.
“Canada Soccer executives have acknowledged to the IRT (Independent Review Team) that errors were made in the management and communication of Birarda’s complaint process, including regretting that ‘we took a silent stance to this topic,” he 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 behavior went unchecked due to the siled nature of the U-20 WNT in Vancouver, a poor understanding of harassment policies and reporting procedures among team players and the facade of Birarda. He was considered “untouchable” due to his power and influence over players.
The review looked at how Canada Soccer handled Birarda, who also coached the Vancouver Whitecaps and the youth national team.
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 scheduled to resume in September.
The charges, which involve four teenage soccer players coached by Birarda, span 20 years between 1988 and 2008. Birarda left the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer in October 2008.
The McLaren report states that with little direction or oversight, Birarda led the team “as he saw fit” and engaged “in what should have been identified by the CSA as relationships, communications and highly questionable, if not outright prohibited, activities with his players. ”
Given the young age and vulnerability of players on the Canadian Under-20 roster, “education and training of national team players and staff on harassment issues should have been greater. priority for ACS,” the report said.
While up to 25 players on a 2008 roster for the Whitecaps women’s team were affiliated with the U-20 national team, there was no formal agreement between Vancouver and Canada Soccer.
And within Canada Soccer, there seemed to be confusion over who was overseeing Birarda.
The coach of the men’s under-20 team reported to a technical director, who in turn reported to the general secretary. However, the U-20 women’s 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 that this lack of reporting “was also a product of CSA’s perceived, if not established, lack of interest and oversight of the U-20 WNT at the time.” Even Pellerud, the coach of the senior women’s team at the time, disputes having supervised Birarda.
This lack of interest in the youth team was demonstrated by the fact that most Canada Soccer executives and staff “did not remember or were unfamiliar with the process of hiring Bob Birarda . The IRT received conflicting accounts of who hired Birarda.
McLaren’s brief in this case was to examine “the institutional response and processes of” Canada Soccer regarding Birarda’s departure in 2008. He was also commissioned to carry out “a review of all current sports policies safety and related issues to identify deficiencies that may require action.”
“This review lays 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 describes a pattern of not documenting decisions that ultimately resulted in player frustration and anger that continues today,” McLaren wrote.
In 2008, Canada Soccer announced a “mutual separation” 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 coach, according to the report. .
“By not following through on the vote to fire Birarda for cause, the CSA has done the players a disservice by not recognizing his harassment as the reason for his removal,” McLaren wrote. “There has been no acknowledgment of the complaints or their impact on the players.
“Furthermore, not having Birarda fired allowed him to continue coaching, putting other players at risk.”
The review was based 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 states that these interviews “corroborated other testimonies and public statements made by former players in 2019”.
The reluctance of former Women’s Under-20 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 office in 2008, Pellerud and CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani, who chaired the national teams committee in 2008.
Allegations against Birarda surfaced in May and September 2008.
The Whitecaps hired Anne Chopra, an ombudsman from the Law Society of British Columbia, to investigate May’s complaint. Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps have jointly engaged Chopra to investigate the second complaint.
Following the May investigation, the ombudsman recommended that Birarda undergo sensitivity training. Canada Soccer’s general secretary told Pellerud that “Birarda was his concern and he was responsible for ensuring that such behavior did not happen again.”
“There was no further follow-up between the CSA and the U-20 WNT players as it was about the May complaints; the CSA did not make any support mechanism available to players on the team, nor did they take the opportunity to remind players of the rules and regulations governing harassment or raise awareness of players’ rights in the event of continued harassment by Birarda says the McLaren report.
It appears Canada Soccer did little in the wake of the May 2008 complaint, other than a senior manager ordering Pellerud to “make sure it doesn’t happen again”.
Canada Soccer also failed to ensure that Birarda fulfilled ‘one of the commitments it made as remedial measures’ and failed to inform U-20 players of the rights and processes to their provision under the existing harassment policy.
The September survey was “limited”, according to the review, with time spent on the probe’s “gamer component” lasting between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.
“Most of the U-20 WNT players were not invited or invited to participate in the investigation. There is no written record of the investigation, including the terms of reference, the final report and the recommendations,” the report says.
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 coach the U-20 WNT”.
The September investigation came after former player Andrea Neil heard allegations and took them to a top Canada Soccer coach.
“Although the CSA acted quickly in investigating the concerns raised by Neil to Even Pellerud, their haste to do so has fueled skepticism among players and allegations of a cover-up. The IRT has no evidence to support allegations of cover-up by anyone associated with Canada Soccer,” the report states.
Members of Canada Soccer’s executive committee at the time said the ombudsman’s “verbal recommendations” were the basis of their vote to terminate Birarda. This vote, however, was not documented in any executive committee or board meeting minutes.
A suspension letter was issued to Birarda by the CSA and the Whitecaps on October 3. Five days later, following meetings between the Whitecaps, the CSA, Birarda and their attorneys, Birarda submitted a resignation letter saying he was stepping down by “mutual agreement.”
“Although the executive committee acted quickly to provisionally suspend Birarda and voted to fire him, it gave him the opportunity to resign from his position without acknowledging his harassment,” the report said.
While the report says Canada Soccer has “clearly made notable progress since 2008 to improve its policies and procedures regarding harassment”, it makes 38 recommendations ranging from governance to code of conduct and player relations.
Canada Soccer has retained the services of ITP Sport and Recreation, a safe sport consulting and program agency co-founded by former Olympian Allison Forsyth, to help implement McLaren’s recommendations.
The McLaren Group is also analyzing Gymnastics Canada’s national safe sport policies and procedures after commissioning an independent investigation into the sport.
Gymnastics was among several sports that complained to Canadian Sports Minister Pascale St-Onge about toxic cultures and mistreatment in their sport in what St-Onge called a “crisis” of safe sport.
Hockey Canada is also in the spotlight, with investigations launched into two alleged cases of sexual misconduct and how the governing body used its funds to settle the cases.
Major League Soccer is carrying out its own investigation into the Whitecaps’ handling of allegations of harassment related to Birarda.
— Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press