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League-ordered investigation says Whitecaps didn't cover up abuse by coaches

An investigation finds that, since 2008, the Whitecaps "have strong measures in place" to address harassment and discrimination.
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Last November, after an ex-player alleged that 2011 coach Hubert Busby Jr. groomed her for sex, MLS retained Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP to look into the Busby case and the 2008 departure of Bob Birarda. 

A Major League Soccer-ordered investigation released Aug. 11 found the Vancouver Whitecaps did not conceal allegations of abuse by two former coaches of the women’s team. 

Last November, after an ex-player alleged that 2011 coach Hubert Busby Jr. groomed her for sex, MLS retained Toronto law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP to look into the Busby case and the 2008 departure of Bob Birarda. 

Birarda awaits sentencing after pleading guilty earlier this year in Provincial Court to three counts of sexually assault players and one count of touching a young person for sexual purpose.

“While the 2008 and 2011 investigations were lacking, the Whitecaps’ actions indicate that they took the allegations seriously, and through the use of an external investigator, addressed them at the time,” wrote co-authors Janice Rubin and Melody Jahanzadeh. “We saw no evidence of a ‘cover-up’ or an interest in dismissing the allegations.”

Their 18-page report concluded that, since 2008, the Whitecaps “have strong measures in place” to address harassment and discrimination. However, the report said the lawyer who investigated the complaints, Anne Chopra, did not co-operate. Of the 14 people who came forward for interviews, only three were ex-players.

“It may be that the former players are fatigued by these reviews and did not want to relive these events with us. It may also be that with so much ‘investigation waters under the bridge,’ the former players did not trust this process,” said the report.

Rubin and Jahanzadeh recommended several tweaks to Whitecaps policies and procedures,  including more thorough written and verbal vetting of coaches, safe sport spot checks on all programs and youth academies, and better documentation for complaints, investigations and remediation.

The club has three confidential reporting lines, but the ombudsperson for operational employees requires a first contact with the complainant with the human resources department. 

“This has the potential to undermine the confidential nature of this reporting method,” the report said.

In a prepared statement, Whitecaps’ CEO Axel Schuster apologized to the women affected, staff, players and the community. 

“There is no place in our organization for any form of sexual harassment or misconduct,” Schuster said. “Players are the heart and soul of our organization, and everyone should be able to pursue their passion for sport in an environment that is safe, respectful, and nurturing.”

The Rubin Thomlinson report follows a scathing, July 28-published review by Richard McLaren, a world-renowned sports law professor from the University of Western Ontario. 

In his 125-page report, McLaren found Birarda operated the women’s national team without oversight and had too much power. He also found both the Canadian Soccer Association and Whitecaps had too few policies and procedures to protect young female players from predators. 

In an early 2019 blog report, former player Ciara McCormack blew the whistle on Birarda’s return to coaching youth soccer, which led to the criminal investigation of Birarda. 

A week before Christmas 2019, the Whitecaps released the three-month-overdue, 32-page summary from Toronto’s Sport Law and Strategy Group (SLSG). That report also said it had no co-operation from Chopra and only 14 of 82 former players were interviewed. 

SLSG said there was no attempt to sweep the incidents under the rug and that Whitecaps ownership and executives “seemed to genuinely believe” they received proper legal advice, which they followed.. 

SLSG said there was a lack of effective communication with players before, during and after the investigations into Birarda. The leadership team chose a path of confidentiality, which led to “lingering animosity still held by some former players today.”

At the time, McCormack called the SLSG report a whitewash. 

“The primary purpose was from a PR standpoint to have the whole thing framed in a way that didn’t make them look like they didn’t cover anything up,” she said in December 2019.

Fifty-one weeks later, Birarda was charged for offences between 1988 and 2008.