Belfast Telegraph

Sunderland's Byrne falls on her sword in wake of Johnson row

Armagh-born CEO admits error letting abuser play

By Allan Preston

The Northern Ireland-born boss of Sunderland FC is today seeking to rebuild her career and reputation after she bowed to public pressure over her handling of the Adam Johnson child sex abuse case.

Margaret Byrne - a former lawyer from Dromintee in Co Armagh - quit her post at the Stadium Of Light after admitting "a serious error of judgment" .

Johnson (28), a £10m signing, faces up to 10 years in jail after being found guilty of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl.

Sunderland have been lambasted for allowing Johnson to keep playing for the club after his arrest in March 2015.

He was suspended for just 16 days, and went on to play again for the Premier League side 28 times, earning £3m in the process.

He was finally sacked on the day before his trial last month when he admitted to grooming the teenage girl.

The club have now said that Ms Byrne was responsible for dealing with the player after he was charged. She joined Sunderland in 2007 and was appointed chief executive in 2011.

She had learned the truth that Johnson had groomed the girl following a meeting with the player and his legal team in May 2015. A note had been given to her stating Johnson had admitted kissing the victim and contacting her.

Ms Byrne said she thought Johnson would deny the charges and decided not to tell anyone, including the board at Sunderland. This decision made it possible for Johnson to keep playing, something Byrne has now described as "a serious mistake".

When Johnson admitted to some of the charges in court, Byrne claimed to be astounded, but conceded he shouldn't have been allowed to play, no matter what way he pleaded in court.

In her statement she said: "I recognise that, as CEO, my involvement with Mr Johnson and the decision to allow him to continue to represent the club was a serious mistake. 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 explained the decision to allow Johnson back into the squad last year came before he was charged. Because he intended to deny all charges, he was "innocent until proven guilty", she said.

Sunderland accepted Ms Byrne's resignation. The club said that while they acknowledged her intentions "have always been to act in the best interests of the club", that "in this instance decisions have been taken by Margaret in error".

They added: "While swift and decisive action was taken to terminate Mr Johnson's employment upon his guilty plea, decisions taken prior to this, including the decision not to suspend him for a second time pending the outcome of the trial, were wrong."

Following the trial an officer from Durham Police read a statement from the victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

It read: "From the very beginning of this, I always doubted that people would believe me. It's been the hardest year of my life.

"What happened in his car has turned my life upside down. Him being found guilty and pleading guilty shows everyone I was telling the truth."

Claire Phillipson from the Sunderland charity Wearside Women In Need told reporters she hoped that Sunderland would learn from their mistakes. "Football is driven, sadly, these days by profit and places in a league, they're very important," she said.

"But you've got to balance that against reputational damage and harm to vulnerable individuals."

From tiny village to the Premier League

The village of Drumintee, or Dromintee, is home to just over a few hundred people in Co Armagh.

Translated the name means "ridge of the house," thought to be a reference to a church sitting on top of a ridge sweeping down from Slieve Gullion. It's also the home of the late writer Michael J Murphy who often contributed to BBC and RTE.

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