MLS and Canada Soccer have ‘moral obligation’ to act on alleged abuse at Whitecaps

The Vancouver Whitecaps, Major League Soccer and Canada Soccer must take “appropriate action” against any individual who failed to address serious allegations against former coaches Bob Birarda and Hubert Busby Jr.

The statement was released on Monday by Professional Footballers Association Canada (PFACan), on behalf of former Whitecaps women’s team players. It says previous attempts by players to highlight allegations of abuse and inappropriate behavior by coaches at the Whitecaps and within Canada’s youth national teams were mishandled.

The statement also calls for Concacaf president and Fifa vice-president Victor Montagliani to cooperate fully with a newly-proposed joint investigation by Canada Soccer and MLS into the allegations against Birarda and Busby. Montagliani was a non-executive board member with Canada Soccer at the time of the allegations against Birarda and involved in the running of the national teams.

The demands in the statement are a “moral obligation” for the three organizations involved, according to the players’ union.

“We want to trust the MLS investigation but we are scarred from the dishonest process and silencing we’ve endured for the last decade from the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer,” Ciara McCormack, a former Whitecaps player, told the Guardian.

The statement was released in response to an announcement by MLS it will launch an investigation after the Guardian last month detailed allegations that Busby tried to solicit sex from a player when he was coach of the Whitecaps’ women’s team in 2010 and 2011. Players say Whitecaps management then tried to cover up the allegations after Busby left the club. Busby denies the allegations.

Last month, the Whitecaps admitted that “our communication with players, staff and the soccer community as to the reasons for Busby’s departure was … inadequate. We should have done better, and for that we are deeply sorry.” The Whitecaps say they have placed several executives on leave in response to the Guardian report.

The MLS inquiry is to be managed by Rubin Thomlinson, a Toronto-based legal firm that specializes in workplace abuse. The statement calls for the firm to take over a previously announced investigation by Canada Soccer into the process behind the controversial dismissal of Birarda.

Birarda was allowed to coach female youth players after leaving his role with the Whitecaps and Canada in 2008 after internal investigations into his conduct. Birada was last year arrested in Vancouver charged with six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault, and one count of child luring over a 20-year period between 1988 and 2008. The charges against Birarda are understood to involve at least three former soccer players. He is currently out on bail and has yet to enter a plea.

Fifa knows about the allegations against Busby, who has been suspended as the head coach of the Jamaica national women’s team, after the Guardian’s report was published. Fifa says it “will decide on appropriate next steps”.

“Anyone who has been found to be involved in the decision making around the public misrepresentation of why these coaches were fired or not handling the investigations properly, should face termination from their position or be forced to sell their team,” said Malloree Enoch, the former Whitecaps player who made the allegations against Busby.

The PFACan statement says the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer did nothing to let other teams know why Birarda and Busby were released from their coaching duties, despite the allegations against them.

“After we went to the same Vancouver Whitecaps leadership and ownership for help, their response was to silence us, quietly investigate without even speaking to the victims, and fire the coaches without any flag or warning for other clubs,” the statement reads.

“Canada Soccer was also involved in the secret investigation of Bob Birarda and took no action to prevent him from coaching other players. As a result, these individuals returned to coaching vulnerable athletes for a good part of the last decade.

“The reality is that a pattern of negligent leadership at both Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps left athletes unsafe, and both organizations failed to take steps to flag the misconduct to other clubs.”

The seven-point statement calls for Canada Soccer and MLS to commit to making any report stemming from the investigation public. PFACan wants the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer to provide funding for mental health services that any former player of Birarda or Busby may require.

“Having these stories told again is important but it is a heavy emotional burden and revives a lot of very bad memories for the players,” said Paul Champ, PFACan legal counsel. “No one has offered mental health support to the players in the past.”

A Concacaf spokesperson said Montagliani had no direct oversight of the Canada national teams at the time of the alleged events despite being a vice-president, national teams, of Canada Soccer when they occurred. According to the spokesperson, Montagliani’s role was fiduciary oversight. Concacaf and Montagliani have said they welcome a review into 2008 investigation of Birarda.

“There is no legal obligation to meet any of these demands, but we strongly believe there is a moral obligation,” said Champ. “Again and again there have been decisions made without considering the input of the players. No one can be truly sorry if you don’t listen to the players who were so seriously impacted.”