While former Sunderland winger Adam Johnson has already been cut from his team and convicted of multiple criminal charges in lieu of his sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl, the fallout of the entire ordeal is still settling. The latest result of the case is today’s announced resignation of the club’s CEO, Margaret Byrne.
According to the Guardian, Byrne announced her decision to step down just today, which she tied directly to the Johnson case in a statement:
In her resignation statement, Byrne said it was a “serious mistake” to allow Johnson to continue to represent the club. “I sincerely regret that this error has impacted on the victim, the club, its supporters and all those affected in such a devastating manner.”
She said she was “astounded” when Johnson pleaded guilty and that allowing him to play again was a “serious error of judgment”.
Byrne added: “Mr Johnson’s victim has endured a terrible ordeal and for that I am truly sorry. At no time was the failure to suspend him again intended to cause any harm or distress to her or her family.”
Public scrutiny of the club’s—and Byrne’s in particular—decision to allow Johnson to continue playing for Sunderland from the time he was arrested in March of 2015 until February of 2016, when he pleaded guilty to two of the charges facing him and saw his contract with Sunderland subsequently terminated, ramped up after certain revelations made during Johnson’s trial.
There, Johnson contended that he had come clean to Byrne in a meeting back in May of 2015, admitting that he had in fact kissed his victim and sent her inappropriate text messages in order to groom her for sexual activity. In addition, Johnson claimed that Byrne had access to the police interview transcripts of Johnson and his victim, as well as reproductions of the hundreds of messages the two sent each other.
The Guardian has since found evidence that verifies that Byrne knew a lot more about the circumstances of the case than she at first let on. The day after Johnson’s meeting with Byrne, his lawyer drafted a memo detailing his client’s version of events:
In the memo, Pownall details the allegations and the evidence against Johnson. The note states that Johnson admitted kissing the teenage Sunderland fan passionately and that she was too young to give consent.
It also raises the prospect of the footballer pleading guilty to that charge of sexual activity with a child – which he publicly denied until the first day of his trial on 10 February.
Byrne is understood to have played a leading role in recruiting Pownall and introduced him to Johnson at a meeting at Sunderland’s training ground, the Academy of Light, on 4 May last year.
In her statements announcing her resignation, Byrne admitted to seeing this memo but claimed she didn’t show it to anyone else at the club.
In the verdict’s aftermath, Sunderland were at first hesitant to explain what and when they knew about Johnson’s behavior prior to the trial. The club did state that, had they known beforehand that Johnson planned on pleading guilty to two of the charges, they would’ve cut him from the team earlier. This to some degree conflicts with the above revelation that Byrne herself, if not the other members of the club’s board, knew that Johnson had contemplated a guilty plea. At any rate, the club had not directly addressed the growing discontentment with their handling of the situation in light of the evidence they had on hand until today.
Sunderland have released a statement of their own accepting Byrne’s resignation, calling their CEO’s decision to allow Johnson to continue playing with the team a “serious error of judgment” and expressing regret for letting down the fans, the victim, and the victim’s family by not acting more quickly after learning of Johnson’s “despicable actions.”
The court has released Johnson on bail and is expected to hand down anywhere from a 4- to 10-year prison stint during sentencing later this month.
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