Sunderland should've suspended Adam Johnson if they knew he kissed girl - NSPCC
Adam Johnson should have been suspended by Sunderland throughout a police investigation into child sex offences if the club knew he had kissed a 15-year-old girl, in the view of the NSPCC.
The 28-year-old former Black Cats midfielder was convicted on Wednesday on one charge of sexual activity with a child, having been acquitted of another.
A spokesman for the NSPCC said: "If they had known he had kissed a girl prior to his guilty plea, then we think they should have suspended him pending the ongoing investigation.
"It would have sent the right message to people that this is a serious offence and needed to be properly investigated."
Johnson was suspended by the club following his arrest on March 2 last year, but was allowed to return to action a fortnight later after a meeting with the Professional Footballers' Association and in the light of independent legal advice.
The former England international was to make a total of 28 further appearances, helping Sunderland stave off the threat of relegation from the Barclays Premier league at the end of last season.
He was charged with four offences on April 23 and, having indicated he intended to defend them and was confident of doing so, was allowed to continue to play, and club officials were stunned when, on the opening day of his trial, he admitted to one count of sexual activity with a girl and another of grooming.
The Black Cats announced that the player had been sacked within hours and, following his conviction, insisted he would have been dismissed immediately had they known he was to plead guilty to any of the charges.
It was claimed during the hearing that the club had known the nature of the offences from the start, and also suggested they chose to play Johnson because of their dire need on the pitch - something the club vehemently refuted in a statement issued after the verdicts were delivered.
It said: "This is utterly without foundation and is refuted in the strongest possible terms. The club never placed any pressure or demands on Mr Johnson to play football during this process.
"Decisions in relation to the pleas and the conduct of the trial have been left entirely to Mr Johnson and his highly experienced and skilled legal team. Mr Johnson has admitted in evidence that he changed his plea 'on legal advice'."
While Sunderland continue to defend their stance, Johnson has been warned to prepare himself for a substantial prison sentence with the NSPCC describing his behaviour towards his victim as "predatory" and "inexcusable".
The spokesman continued: "Adam Johnson cynically used his celebrity status as a professional footballer to groom and sexually abuse an impressionable schoolgirl.
"Even though he was fully aware of her age, he continued the relationship without any concern for the profound and damaging impact it might have on her.
"His behaviour throughout was inexcusable, made even worse by the fact his not guilty pleas forced his young victim to suffer the harrowing experience of giving evidence in court.
"We hope she gets the appropriate help to recover from this dreadful episode and Johnson takes the time to reflect on how his predatory actions have caused so much anguish."
The victim, who revealed the impact Johnson's actions had had on her in a statement read out outside the court, was uppermost in the thoughts of Clare Phillipson, director of charity Wearside Women in Need.
Phillipson said: "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, which would have added to her trauma.
"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 with a fair process for both sides."
Phillipson also questioned Sunderland's decision to lift Johnson's suspension if, as was claimed in court, they were aware of the detail of the allegations.
She 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 and lots of other people thought, 'Oh well, the club is still letting him play, the case against him can't be very good, he probably is innocent'.
"Once again, that leaves the victim feeling vilified and not believed and feeling that she was at fault and it was her who was to blame."