Club failure to suspend Johnson comes under fresh attack
Pressure is mounting on Sunderland football club bosses, including Co Armagh-born chief executive Margaret Byrne (below), to explain when they became aware of the full extent of player Adam Johnson's sex crimes.
The 28-year-old former England footballer (right) has been told he will receive a "substantial prison sentence" after he was found guilty of sexual activity with a besotted 15-year-old fan.
He had already admitted a less serious charge of sexual activity with the teenager and also grooming her over social media.
Clare Phillipson, director of charity Wearside Women in Need, said allowing Johnson to continue playing sent out an "absolutely dreadful" message as it led people to think he was probably innocent.
"The core issue is the role of social media both in terms of how he was able to groom her and how it plays out on public websites and how that plays into the actions of Sunderland Football Club," she said.
"So when he was first arrested and released on police bail, there were literally thousands of comments on websites about that and the vast majority were vilifying his victim.
"What we need to know is, not at what point did Sunderland know he was going to plead guilty, but at what point did they know that he had met with her and been alone with her in a car?"
A statement from the club said it had not been advised in advance that Johnson would plead guilty to any offence.
During the trial the jury was told that, by May 4, when Ms Byrne met Johnson and his barrister Orlando Pownall QC, the club had all 834 WhatsApp messages exchanged between the footballer and the teenage girl and transcripts of police interviews with Johnson and the girl.
Ms Phillipson said: "If that's true, then at that point they definitely should have suspended him because, in allowing him to continue to play, tens of thousands of fans thought: 'Oh well, the club is still letting him play - the case against him can't be very good, he probably is innocent'.
"And once again that leaves the victim feeling vilified and not believed and feeling that she was at fault. It was a dreadful message that will not encourage children to come forward.
"If we want to stamp out the behaviour of predatory paedophiles then we need to send a very clear message to victims that if you do come forward you won't be vilified and you'll be listened to fairly."