Firm message needed on Jay Donnelly case
Pressure is growing on Cliftonville Football Club to take decisive action after player Jay Donnelly was sentenced to four months in jail for distributing an indecent photograph of a child.
The intimate image showed the then 21-year-old having sex with a 16-year-old girl who was wearing his team shirt.
Despite the girl asking him to delete the image, Donnelly shared it with a friend and ten fellow players on a WhatsApp social media group.
The photo subsequently appeared on Facebook, which resulted in people shouting abuse at the girl in the street, leaving her humiliated and distressed.
District Judge Amanda Henderson, who also placed Donnelly on the sex offenders register, described his actions as 'an extreme abuse of trust.'
She noted that he was five years older than the injured party and the photo was of a 'highly intimate nature.'
Donnelly was granted bail pending appeal against the sentence but this case clearly raises serious issues regarding this crime and how it has been handled by Cliftonville.
While the specific circumstances are different, it is inevitable that parallels will be drawn with the rape trial involving Ulster rugby players last year, who were acquitted of all charges.
Ulster Rugby suspended the players after they were charged and sacked Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding following an outcry over sexually explicit WhatsApp messages which were revealed during the trial.
The serious charge faced by Jay Donnelly should have warranted suspension without prejudice but this was a course of action Cliftonville chose not to take.
It is also not clear if the club was aware he had pleaded guilty when he was selected to play in an Irish League match.
Cliftonville certainly has questions to answer and while this type of situation is obviously very difficult for all concerned, the club has to take account of its wider responsibilities.
The North Belfast Reds Supporters Club yesterday expressed dismay at Cliftonville's statement issued on Thursday in which it said the judgment and outcome of the appeal would be 'given due consideration'.
The supporters club called on Cliftonville to begin full disciplinary proceedings against the player.
''To wait until the outcome of any possible appeal is unacceptable and damages the reputation of the club,'' said the supporters.
Following this criticism, Cliftonville issued a more detailed statement condemning the actions of its player but explaining it faced legal constraints as employers.
It must be hoped the club is soon in a position to send out a firm message on this player's conduct and to fully respond to legitimate concerns.
The fact that the football authorities are to introduce an education programme for all players and staff is a necessary step given the issues that have arisen in this case.