IRISH businesswoman Margaret Byrne has resigned from her position as Sunderland AFC chief executive in the wake of the Adam Johnson child abuse case.
Former England international Johnson was last week found guilty of one count of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl and the Premier League club have been criticised for prolonging his contract throughout his trial.
It had been alleged in court, by Johnson’s counsel Orlando Pownall, that Byrne was aware that the 28-year-old kissed and groomed the minor as she had transcripts of police interviews in which the footballer admitted to his crimes.
Johnson was only ever suspended by the club for two weeks in the aftermath of being charged over a year ago and went on to play a further 28 times for the Black Cats before being sacked in February for pleading guilty to one count of sexual activity and one count of grooming his victim.
He faces four to ten years in prison.
For her part in the decision allow Johnson to continue playing, Armagh native Byrne admitted making a “serious error of judgement” and took “full responsibility” in a statement announcing her resignation.
…Mr Johnson remained innocent until proven guilty and I was concerned that any action taken by the club against him may be misinterpreted as a judgment on the club's part as to his guilt at a time when he steadfastly maintained his determination to plead not guilty and fight the charges.
On that basis I recommended to the Board that Mr Johnson should be allowed to play for the club, pending trial.
Mr Johnson's victim has endured a terrible ordeal and for that I am truly sorry…
…To this end and for the long-term good of the club and its staff, I have stepped down as CEO with immediate effect.
— Indy Football (@IndyFootball) March 8, 2016
In a separate statement, Sunderland acknowledged Byrne’s role in the decision to allow him to continue his playing career with the club and accepted her resignation, whilst offering an apology to the victim’s family.
Margaret, in her role as CEO, was responsible for the running of the club. She was also accountable for the actions taken by the club in relation to Mr. Johnson. Sunderland AFC acknowledges that Margaret’s intentions have always been to act in the best interests of the club, however it has become clear through our own internal investigations that in this instance decisions have been taken by Margaret in error.
Whilst 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. In light of what has been acknowledged by Margaret as a serious error of judgment on her part, we have undertaken a full review of the club’s decision-making processes to ensure that there can be no such mistakes in the future.
Byrne, a qualified solicitor and former criminal lawyer, was born in Armagh and became Sunderland’s chief executive at the age of just 31 in 2011.
Last year, she was listed as the 18th most influential woman in British sport by The Independent.