Former B.C. soccer coach Bob Birarda to spend 16 months in jail for sex offences

VANCOUVER — A provincial court judge has sentenced a former soccer coach to nearly 16 months in jail for sex offences that "immeasurably harmed" four female teenage athletes.

Judge Deanne Gaffar said Bob Birarda, a former Vancouver Whitecaps and Soccer Canada coach, violated the "sexual integrity" of the four players, three of whom were under 18 at the time of the offences, which occurred between 1988 and 2008.

Gaffar handed Birarda a sentence of two years less a day on Wednesday. She said he is to spend 15 months and 29 days of that term in jail, while the remaining eight months of his sentence will be served under conditions that had yet to be imposed.

Birarda, 55, who lives with his wife of 29 years, pleaded guilty in February to three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching involving the teens.

The judge said Birarda's early guilty plea was a mitigating factor in his sentencing, while the underlying "power imbalance" in which his victims were forced to navigate his conduct was an aggravating element, Gaffar told the North Vancouver courtroom.

Each of the victims were talented and determined athletes who sought to play soccer at high levels before Birarda's offences, the judge said Wednesday.

The former coach was in a position of trust with the victims, who feared that rejecting his interest in them would harm their soccer careers, Gaffar said.

Birarda previously read an apology to the victims and all others he said he has let down, including his family, saying there is no excuse or justification for his actions.

He told his sentencing hearing earlier this fall that he was filled with the "deepest shame" for the sex offences, which ranged from having sex with a player while he was her coach in his early 20s, to pursuing a 17-year-old player when he was 40.

In the latter case, Gaffar said the girl attended Birarda's soccer academy between the ages of 11 and 14, and by 2007, the 17-year-old had been selected as a prospect for the Vancouver Whitecaps' women's team where he was coaching.

It was around that time that Birarda's communication with her "devolved," the judge said, into a pattern similar to his previous offences. He sent messages telling the girl she had put a "spell" on him, and she was "making" him fall in love with her.

The woman quit soccer on her 18th birthday, Gaffar said.

Birarda's lawyer Bill Smart had argued for an eight-month jail sentence.

The Crown had recommended the sentence of two years less a day, allowing Birarda to serve his time in a provincial institution.

Gaffar followed the Crown's suggestion for the harsher sentence, saying Birarda's victims have experienced anxiety, self-doubt and in some cases depression into adulthood, and his behaviour has affected their ability to trust others.

Birarda put his head in his hands briefly as the judge described the impacts of his behaviour on one of the victims, saying the woman indicated "she fears him."

There were also significant mitigating circumstances, Gaffar said, including Birarda's early guilty plea, which meant the victims did not have to relive their experiences while testifying, along with his demonstration of "profound personal guilt."

Birarda has received counselling to deal with the "disgust and remorse" he feels over his conduct, said Gaffar, adding she accepts the conclusions of two psychological assessments that found he was at a low risk of reoffending.

Growing up, Birarda experienced family violence perpetrated by his father and witnessed his mother and siblings experiencing the same, Gaffar noted.

Birarda was sexually abused by a family member when he was 10 or 11 years old, and later by an older swimmer when he was swimming competitively, she said.

From 2008 to 2019, he experienced intermittent thoughts of suicide, and in 2019, he was admitted to hospital for several days due to suicidal ideation.

Gaffar noted the case has garnered public attention and the stigma of the offences can be seen as a form of punishment, in addition to a prison sentence.

The judge said Birarda's lawyerhad argued that a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision requiring increased sentences for sexual offences against children and youth doesn't deal with historical offences, and Birarda faced more stringent consequences today than he would have at the time of the incidents.

But Gaffar did not accept that argument in determining Birarda's sentence, saying the high court's decision does apply and represents a "clarion call" to properly reflect the gravity of such offences and the moral culpability of the offender.

There has been a societal shift in how sexual assault is viewed in the years since Birarda's offences, she said, and the high court decision reflects a more modern understanding that requires greater attention to psychological consequences.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2022.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press