Loyal Whitecaps fans walk out during game to protest club's response to abuse allegations

'Sincere regret': Whitecaps owners apologize for handling of abuse allegations

The Vancouver Whitecaps' oldest supporters group left their seats during the team's home match against Los Angeles FC on Wednesday night, in protest of the club's response to allegations of abuse against a former women's coach.

Last month, 12 former members of the 2008 women's Whitecaps and national women's under-20 squads issued a public statement saying each of them witnessed "incidents of abuse, manipulation, or inappropriate behaviour" by head coach Bob Birarda in 2007 and 2008, when he was in charge of both teams.

Both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer quietly parted ways with the coach in 2008. The group of former players is now calling for an investigation into events that year and demanding both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer implement better harassment policies.

As promised, the fan group vacated their seats in the 35th minute of the game at B.C. Place. A crush of fans stood on the concourse and continued to watch the team play on TV screens before returning for the second half. 

Earlier Wednesday, Southsiders vice-president Peter Czimmermann said the fan group wanted to make a display of support for the women, before returning to their seats for the second half.

"I think it's very important to keep this [story] in the public eye," Czimmermann said during a phone interview. "I can't think of anything more important than keeping young people in sports [safe]," he added.

"What we're trying to do is support what these women are asking for: to have safe policies for young girls and boys in sports and make sure coaches who behave inappropriately are not allowed to coach again."

Soon after leaving Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps, Birarda started coaching teenage girls at the Tsawwassen Soccer Club, and later at South Surrey's Coastal FC.

He held the position of girls coach at Coastal FC until February of this year, when he was suspended after former Whitecaps player Ciara McCormack published a blog post accusing Birarda of abuse.

Czimmermann said he was shocked to hear the women's allegations, particularly concerning the Whitecaps organization and its response to claims of abuse.

"I was surprised, but the most important aspect of it aside from the horrible things that happened, is how the situation has been handled or how it was not handled."

In October 2008, six weeks before the U-20 Women's World Cup in Chile, Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps parted ways with Birarda in what was described by both organizations at the time as a "mutual decision."

Ian Bridge, the coach who took over the teams, told CBC News that Birarda's departure was due to "inappropriate communication with players."

CBC has asked Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps to see the independent investigator's report into Birarda's behaviour that was jointly commissioned in September 2008. Neither organization has responded to the request but said they are working with police in light of the recent allegations. 

Whitecaps respond

The Whitecaps responded to the outcry in a lengthy letter posted on Wednesday afternoon, writing "there is no higher priority at Vancouver Whitecaps than the safety and well-being of our staff and athletes."

"In light of the specific details contained in a blog dated April 1, 2019, we were concerned there may be new information related to this matter that did not come forward in 2008 or since," it read in part.

The letter said the Whitecaps contacted the Vancouver Police Department after the blog was posted to determine whether the case warranted further review, and that the club has been in active communication with VPD since then.

"As a professional club we respect the very important role that coaches play in our sport. While we are not involved in the certification or licensing of soccer coaches, which falls under the jurisdiction of soccer's governing bodies, we support any efforts they are making or may make to ensure the highest coaching standards are being met across our sport," the letter added.