Former elite soccer coach apologizes to victims in court

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

Bob Birarda stood and delivered an apology before breaking down in tears during day two of his sentencing hearing in North Vancouver provincial court.

“I’m truly sorry to each of you for the pain, upset and trauma I have caused you,” he said in a quavering voice. 

“I’m here today to take responsibility for my actions and the impact I’ve had on you … There’s no excuse or justification for my conduct and I offer none,” he said. 

Birarda addressed each victim individually. Their names are protected by a publication ban.

The former head coach of both the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team and Canadian under-20 women’s soccer team pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose in February.

The offences took place between 1998 and 2008, and relate to four former players who were teens when he coached them.

Birarda is certain to serve time in jail. Defence counsel is asking for a prison term of eight months followed by four months of house arrest. Crown submitted jail time of two years less a day, plus another three-year conditional sentence. 

In defence submissions, lawyer William Smart told the court Birarda was in his early 20s and volunteering as an assistant coach when he committed the first two offences in 1988 and 1990, respectively. Smart said as a relatively young man, Birarda “didn’t understand the power imbalance” between a coach and player.

Bob Birarda pictured in an interview with CBC News in 2007. Birarda has pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose. (CBC News)

From 2006-2008, the time period relating to the single count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose, Smart painted a picture of a mentally unwell man who was “losing touch with reality.”

“The defence does not dispute that Mr. Birarda was in a position of trust,” said Smart. “He is an inherently insecure person who at that point was overwhelmed with life.”

Earlier Judge Deanne Gaffar heard that during that time, Birarda sent the victim a deluge of messages, telling her he loved her, that he “got off” while viewing her photograph and that he had started a countdown to her 18th birthday — which he called “Ecstasy Day” — when it would be legal to have sex with her.

Smart said his client was now “profoundly embarrassed” by his behaviour, and described the sexual touching that occurred — kissing the player, stroking her neck, giving her an unwanted hug — as offensive but minor.

Birarda was quietly dismissed by Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps in October 2008 for incidents and text messages involving different players. He started coaching girls soccer in a Vancouver suburb a few months later.

Smart read excerpts to the court from a number of letters written by female players Birarda coached in the decade after leaving team Canada and the Whitecaps.

All described Birarda as a positive influence in their lives. Smart said the letters were evidence he was a low-risk to re-offend.

According to Smart, Birarda, 55, has suffered shame and humiliation because of the intense media and social media attention on the case, and may have to serve his jail time in protective custody.

“Mr. Birarda will carry the stigma for the rest of his life,” said Smart.

A sentencing decision will be announced at future date.

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

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