Sentencing for former Whitecaps coach details persistent communication with victims that turned sexual

·4 min read
Former Vancouver Whitecaps and Team Canada coach Bob Birarda, left, is pictured leaving court in North Vancouver after day one of his sentencing hearing. Birarda has pleaded guilty to four sex-related charges involving four players he used to coach. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Former Vancouver Whitecaps and Team Canada coach Bob Birarda, left, is pictured leaving court in North Vancouver after day one of his sentencing hearing. Birarda has pleaded guilty to four sex-related charges involving four players he used to coach. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains graphic detail and may affect those who have experienced sexual abuse or know someone who has.

The sentencing hearing for former Canada Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps women's coach Bob Birarda began Wednesday in North Vancouver Provincial Court with the Crown asking for jail time of two years less a day plus three years probation.

In February, Birarda pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose. The charges stem from the complaints of four women who were teens when he coached them. The offences were committed between 1988 and 2008. The victims' names are protected by a publication ban.

Crown prosecutor Linda Ostry said at the heart of the case is the imbalance of power between the victims and the accused.

Birarda sat attentively, with his hands on his lap, wearing a grey suit and white shirt as the agreed statement of facts was read out in the courtroom.

It included accounts of the personal relationships he cultivated with the women.

'He was a gatekeeper'

Three of the victims' stories began in similar fashion, with persistent phone calls and other electronic communication from Birarda that at first were about soccer, but gradually turned personal and then sexual in nature.

Victim One first met Birarda in 1988 when she tried out for the B.C. under-16 provincial team, where he was assistant coach. She was 16 years old and finishing Grade 10. Birarda was 21.

After she became a starter on the team, Birarda started calling her more and more frequently.

Over time, he began steering the conversations toward personal matters, asking about her boyfriend, what she was wearing and telling her he fantasized about her.

The relationship devolved into phone sex and then in-person sexual encounters. Victim One told Birarda the relationship was inappropriate and that she felt he was taking advantage of her.

CBC News
CBC News

Victim Two was 17 going on 18 in 1990 when she met Birarda after making the B.C. under-18 provincial team where he was assistant coach. Victim One warned Victim Two about Birarda when she saw him flirting with her.

According to the agreed statement of facts, Birarda began calling Victim Two with "unusual" frequency, speaking about her "outstanding talent" and other positive qualities. He eventually started asking about her boyfriend and other personal details.

In May 1990, the phone calls became "outright sexually suggestive."

Victim Two felt she had to walk a line with Birarda. "He was a gatekeeper ... so you didn't have a chance to tell him to screw off because he could shut down your career."

She had just turned 18 when he grabbed her and kissed her passionately, without consent, and told her he wanted to make love to her.

Victim Three was first coached by Birarda at age 15 on a B.C. provincial team.

In 1990, he was coaching at the University of British Columbia and invited her on a recruiting visit. She was in Grade 12. He also offered to drive her. The visit never happened because the two were in a car accident.

After her father attended the scene, Birarda and the young woman ended up back at his place, waiting for a doctor's appointment. He insisted on giving her a massage, which she declined. But he persisted and she eventually submitted.

During the massage he lifted up her shirt, unhooked her bra and groped her breasts without consent. She was 17 and he was 27.

Influence to 'make or break' career

Victim Four first met Birarda at age 11 when she signed up for extra coaching at his soccer school, Total Soccer Systems.

In 2006, when she was 16 and focused on becoming an elite player, the two started communicating via texts and emails about her soccer future. He was 39, coaching the Vancouver Whitecaps Women's team and Canadian women's program.

Similar to Victim One and Two, their communication became increasingly personal and sexualized, and greatly increased in volume by the summer of 2007.

Victim Four said Birarda had the influence to "make or break her soccer career." He told her he "got off" while viewing photographs of her, and was counting down to her 18th birthday, which he called "Ecstasy Day," when it would be legal to have sex with her. While in a car together, he kissed her and stroked her neck without her consent.

In 2008, after quitting soccer to get away from him, she filed a complaint against Birarda with the West Vancouver police, which included texts and emails. It was determined the case did not meet the bar for charges.

Betrayal of trust

Birarda was quietly let go from the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canadian women's team in October of 2008 for incidents and text messages involving different players.

In victim impact statements, the court heard how the women felt Birarda used his power as a coach and "gatekeeper" to manipulate victims, and how his betrayal of trust was, and remains, devastating to the women, leaving them with feelings of depression, shame and anxiety that persist today.

They said Birarda destroyed their love of soccer and aspirations to succeed in the sport.

Birarda's defence has yet to make submissions. The next hearing date is yet to be determined.

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