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Crown asks for two-year sentence for former Whitecaps women's coach

Sentencing hearing for Bob Birarda, who pleaded guilty in February to four sex charges, will continue at a later date in North Vancouver provincial court.
Former Whitecaps and Canada Soccer coach Bob Birarda, 54, pleaded guilty to four charges, including three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching while in a position of authority, in North Vancouver provincial court on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. | North Shore News files

A Crown prosecutor has asked a judge to sentence a former coach for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canada Soccer’s women’s teams to two years less a day in custody for sexual offences involving four teenage soccer players. 

Bob Steven Birarda, 55, pleaded guilty Feb. 8 to four charges, including three counts of sexual assault and one count of sexual touching while in a position of authority. The charges involve four teenage soccer players Birarda coached. The charges span almost 20 years, between 1988 and 2008.

Birarda was originally charged with nine sexual offences, including six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault and luring of a young person, against the same four people. An additional count of sexual assault was later added.

Birarda was a prominent figure in the soccer community, running a soccer academy in the Lower Mainland and coaching at both provincial and national levels.

At a sentencing hearing in North Vancouver provincial court Wednesday (June 8) morning, Crown counsel Linda Ostry outlined the circumstances of the offences, reading from an agreed statement of facts in the case.

In the cases of each of the four victims, Ostry described how the teenage girls – all under 18 at the time – had played for elite soccer teams coached by Birarda.

Ostry described how Birarda began by praising their skills as soccer players and phoning and texting them at home to talk about soccer. But in each case, Birarda turned the conversations to become personal, eventually pursuing the teen players off the soccer pitch and pressuring them to have sexual relationships with him.

The first teenage victim met Birarda in 1988 when he was a 21-year-old assistant coach for a provincial U16 soccer team and she was a 16-year-old player on the team, said Ostry.

The woman told police about how Birarda began giving her a lot of attention, calling her at home to talk about soccer and her future in the game, said Ostry.

But after a few months, the conversations became more personal, said Ostry, with Birarda quizzing the teen about whether she had a boyfriend and what she liked to do with him. Eventually Birarda told the teen he was attracted to her and “wanted to see her naked,” said Ostry.

Birarda was “flirty and flattering to her at practice,” said Ostry.

Eventually Birarda pressured the girl into having sexually explicit phone conversations with him, said Ostry.

One night, Birarda called the teen at home and asked her to come to his Lynn Valley apartment in North Vancouver, where they engaged in sexual activity, Ostry told the judge.

The victim told police she felt the relationship with Birarda was “inappropriate and wrong” but feared his potential impact on her soccer career, said Ostry, noting “Mr. Birarda was a major player.”

The victim also described feeling guilty and being worried she would be kicked off the team if anyone found out about the relationship, said Ostry.

Eventually when the victim was 18, her sexual and personal relationship with Birarda tapered off, and she noticed Birarda was paying special attention to another player on the team, said Ostry.

Another victim, who was 17 when she was coached by Birarda in 1990, also described how Birarda would call her at home, at first to discuss soccer, then having phone calls that became more intimate and sexually suggestive, said Ostry.

The teen was uncomfortable but said she feared what would happen if she rejected him. "It wasn't just like some 25-year-old guy hitting on you," Ostry quoted the woman as saying. “He was a gatekeeper to everything you had been working and dreaming about.”

One time, when the teen was left alone on the soccer pitch with Birarda, he suddenly took her in his arms and kissed her passionately, said Ostry, telling her he wanted to have sex with her  "right there in the soccer field.”

The teen pulled away from him.

Another time he called her to tell her how watching her do a hamstring stretch was sexually arousing for him, said Ostry.

The teen considered leaving the team, said Ostry, but Birarda eventually left to take another coaching job.

The third female soccer player victimized by Birarda had played for the B.C. girls provincial soccer team, starting when she was 15, said Ostry. When the teen was 17 and Birarda was 27,  he insisted on giving the teen a massage in his apartment following an injury, lifting up her shirt and touching her sexually in the process.

The fourth victim first met Birarda when she played with a Vancouver area soccer academy as an 11-year-old. Later, in 2006, the teen was playing on an elite provincial team when she went to Birarda for advice.

Again, at first their conversations were just about soccer, said Ostry, adding the teen considered him a mentor.

But soon Birarda’s interactions turned flirtatious, with Birarda questioning the teen on her personal life and her boyfriend.

Birarda’s phone calls became more frequent, and he often told her, “’You put a spell on me. You’re making me fall in love with you,’” said Ostry.

Later, when the teen was selected to be part of an elite women’s prospects team, she realized Birarda wanted to have sex with her, said Ostry. He talked about wanting to kiss her and counting down the days until her 18th birthday.

At one point, Birarda texted the teen telling her “You’re my girl.”

The teen wrote back that she was not his girl, said Ostry.

At one point, Birarda wrote to the teen telling her, “What the hell is wrong with me? I’m a grown man and I’m in love with a 17-year-old girl,” said Ostry.

But he continued to talk about wanting to have sex with her.

Eventually, the teen decided the only way to escape the situation was to quit soccer before she turned 18.

In victim impact statements, read out by the prosecutor, the women described the lasting impacts Birarda’s actions have had on them.

One of the women described how she feels she “cannot trust my judge of character” and has felt shame, anxiety and stress.

Another wrote about how his actions had erased her dream of representing Canada on an elite women’s soccer team.

“You stole this from me,” she said.

Another wrote of being unable to play soccer again because of the anxiety she associated with the sport.

“Losing that was heartbreaking,” she said.

Ostry told the judge that Birarda's position of trust and authority over the teens, and his prominent position in the sport was an aggravating factor in the case.

“He held an incredible amount of power in that community,” she said. "He wasn’t a neighbourhood coach on a Saturday afternoon team . . . He'd been to four World cups. He was the person you had to go through in order to progress."

The lengthy period of time of which the offences were committed and the multiple victims were also aggravating factors in the case that called for a jail sentence, said Ostry, followed by three years of probation.

Birarda sat in court Wednesday, wearing a grey suit often looking down at his hands clasped in front of him.

A continuation of sentencing hearing, including submissions from Birarda’s defence lawyer Bill Smart, has been adjourned to a later date in North Vancouver provincial court by Judge Deanne Gaffar.

Birarda was dismissed by both the Whitecaps and Canada Soccer in October 2008.

Birarda, who grew up in North Vancouver and lives in Delta, remains free on bail conditions including that he not have any contact with any of the alleged victims or go to any place where they are likely to be. He must also stay away from public parks, community centres, theatres, pools, schools or soccer fields where people under 18 are likely to be and must not have contact or be in the presence of anyone under 18 except with prior written permission of a bail supervisor.

Birarda must also not engage in coaching, volunteer work or employment that could bring him in contact with people under 18.

Identities of the victims are protected under a court-ordered publication ban.

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