Canadian MPs summon senior soccer officials as they investigate response to abuse

<span>Photograph: Darryl Dyck/AP</span>
Photograph: Darryl Dyck/AP

Concacaf president Victor Montagliani has been summoned to appear at an investigation by Canadian elected government officials into business dealings by Canada Soccer and how the organization has responded to sexual abuse within the sport.

A summons has also been issued to another former Canada Soccer president, Nick Bontis. He was elected to Concacaf’s Council in February as its representative for North America just days before resigning from his position at Canada Soccer amid a labor dispute with the women’s national team. Sean Heffernan, Canada Soccer’s chief financial officer, has also been issued with a summons.

The move comes as one of the four women who filed police reports that led to the conviction of Bob Birarda spoke for the first time since the former Canada national youth team coach was jailed for sexual assaults he committed against players. The woman called the lack of accountability for top soccer officials who she says failed to protect young players “offensive and grotesque”.

Montagliani, who is also a Fifa vice-president, and Bontis have been summoned in relation to various senior roles they have held with the organization over several decades. A Heritage Committee administrative official said they are expected to face questions “not later than 31 March” as Canadian Member of Parliament and committee member Anthony Housefather underlined the significance of the summonses.

Related: Fifa backs executives after failure to tell players about sexually abusive coach

“It’s not an invitation,” said Housefather. “It is actually a summons. Normally we invite witnesses. We don’t summon them. In this case, they have to appear. It will be relatively soon provided they are in Canada. I assume that considering they both live in Canada and want to be able to come back to Canada if they are not here that it will happen soon.”

Concacaf did not respond to a request for comment about the summonses issued to Montagliani and Bontis.

Housefather was speaking after he and other MPs grilled Canada Soccer general secretary Earl Cochrane and board members Stephanie Geosits and Paul-Claude Berube last Monday about the governing body’s controversial marketing and media rights deal with third-party rights holder Canada Soccer Business as well as how it managed abuse within the sport – including the Birarda sexual assault scandal.

In 2008, complaints were made by members of the Canadian women’s U-20 team and Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team about Birarda’s behavior. Birarda held head coach roles with the teams. His subsequent departure was characterized as a mutual parting of ways, no mention was made of the allegations against him and he was given Canada Soccer’s “best wishes”. At the time, Montagliani was a central figure in how the departure was managed and Peter Montopoli, now in charge of Canada’s 2026 World Cup host role, was the organization’s general secretary.

Housefather said MPs want to explore how abuse in soccer is handled. “In 2008, Canada Soccer was aware of multiple claims against a coach and they put out a letter saying he was leaving to pursue other things. They didn’t warn other teams where he could be coaching young women that there were claims he was a predator,” said Housefather. “Certainly, Montagliani was very involved at the time. The goal is to come up with the question of whether national federations can be left to themselves to handle these [issues] or do we need national standards. I believe we do.”

In last week’s testimony, Cochrane claimed Birarda had been suspended by the organization – the first time it had publicly announced action against the disgraced coach. A Canada Soccer spokesman subsequently told the Guardian that Birarda received a lifetime suspension of his coaching registration on 2 November 2022 for being “charged with, pleaded guilty to, and been sentenced for the Criminal Code of Canada offences of three counts of sexual assault and one count of touching a young person for a sexual purpose.”

The spokesman said Birarda’s suspension was not made public last year because “there was no formal mechanism by which to make this suspension public.” The spokesman added that Canada Soccer’s revised Safe Sport policies will include “a national public registry [that] will be created to deal with matters of this nature.”

In a first interview since Birarda was jailed, a former player has spoken about her experience of being a member of a team Birarda coached. The player, who encountered Birarda as a 17-year-old, was one of several players who filed police reports that resulted in Birarda’s eventual criminal conviction. The player said she discovered by reading a report by the Guardian that Birarda was still coaching in the community in 2019 after leaving his roles with Canada Soccer and the Whitecaps.

“I went to the police to get him out of coaching and to protect other girls in the future,” the woman said. “We clearly could not count on [Canada Soccer] to do this. The criminal justice system was a three-year process but Canada Soccer could have made a move in a minute.”

The Birarda case was subject to a reporting ban in Canada because of the nature of his crimes. The Guardian has agreed to not name the woman but has confirmed her identity.

“Victor Montagliani and Peter Montopoli covered up a sexual predator in their own coaching ranks at Canada Soccer,” said the former player. “By shrouding his departure, narrating it as a decision taken so that Birarda could attend to his own health and family, allowing him to ‘resign’, and making no mention of his misconduct, Canada Soccer did more to protect the predator than they have ever done to protect us, the players.

“Canada Soccer irresponsibly shifted him on [elsewhere], where he could [potentially] do more harm and failed the fundamental duty of safeguarding and won’t even acknowledge it. It’s all a big dodge-and-weave to protect their own personal power and reputation. Birarda was back coaching young girls just a few months after he was moved on by Canada Soccer. These are the ethics of the people in charge of soccer in this country for the last 20 years which perhaps explains a lot about why the federation is in such a crisis. Now Montagliani and Montopoli oversee our hosting of the next World Cup? It’s offensive and grotesque.”

A Concacaf spokesperson told the Guardian last year that Montagliani had acted on legal advice when dealing with Birarda’s departure: “the … handling of Mr Birarda’s departure, including the communications, was led by Canada Soccer’s legal counsel.” Fifa has said that “Canada Soccer acted in good faith [in relation to Birarda’s departure] and that there was no evidence of a cover up.” Montagliani left Canada Soccer in 2017 after being elected president of Concacaf in 2016.

Multiple attempts by players over more than a decade failed to move Canada Soccer to recognize the serious nature of allegations against Birarda. According to players, a report into how the Birarda case was handled was only commissioned when the 2021 Olympic gold medal-winning women’s team refused to embark on a celebration tour unless Canada Soccer launched an investigation into the disgraced coach.

“In 2008, the players on the Under-20 national team ranged from 15- to 20-years-old, and Canada Soccer had a duty of care to support and protect them,” said Andrea Neil, who played 132 times for Canada, including four World Cups. “It is clear that the leadership failed them. This is not a case of ‘that was then, but this is now’. In 2019, when many former U-20s came forward with accounts of their experiences, any healthy organization would have responded with serious concern. They should have been calling for further investigation, leading responsibly and offering support to their players. However, responsibility was not taken in 2008, not in 2019, and not even in 2022.”

Neil said that several players from the 2008 Vancouver Whitecaps and U-20 national team that played under Birarda had requested mental health support from Canada Soccer in late 2021. After a year of discussions between lawyers representing the players and the organizations, the request has not yet been resolved.

“I’ve observed that Canada Soccer has spent more time and energy carefully protecting its interests than they have ever spent caring for and supporting these women,” Neil said. “While I think words are extremely important, what you can see beyond words is their attitude and priorities as demonstrated through their patterns of behavior. The levels of deliberate obfuscation and verbal side-stepping in how they managed the Birarda incident over many years have been well beyond neglectful forms of leadership.”

Housefather said the public needed to trust the sport was safe to participate in and that the governing body had high standards of governance.

“Young people and adults want to participate in sports and they want to know they can do it safely whether it is at the highest level of world championship or Olympic teams or at the [social] level,” Housefather said. “They need to know that they are valued and that their national federation holds them in esteem and that policies are followed to protect them. That is protecting them from misconduct and also understanding where their dues go and governance to make sure that the federation is not buying suits for the Soccer Canada board - which they did at a luxury store in Montreal.”

He added that the committee would also look into how Canada Soccer conducted business.

“[Montagliani and Bontis] were very much involved in various matters,” Housefather told the Guardian. “The agreement with Canada Soccer Business – which was an exclusive representation agreement – related to rights of sponsorship and rights of broadcasting which seems to have led to a shortfall in financing of the women’s team this year as they prepare for the World Cup.

“There is a lot of that agreement that is very mysterious to somebody like me who was a general counsel of a multinational. Reading through a commercial agreement that just doesn’t seem to jibe for me. [Former] board members say they never approved the agreements.”