The U.S. Youth Soccer Association agreed Friday to pay $8.2 million to settle a former player’s lawsuit claiming the nation’s largest youth sports league failed to properly screen her Sunnyvale coach who was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing her when she was 13.
Attorney Stephen J. Estey, who represented the now 19-year-old former player, called the settlement a record for a single-plaintiff sex abuse case and said he and his client hope it will send a message to sports leagues about their duty to protect the children in their care.
“She wanted to hold the defendant accountable,” Estey said. “She wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to any other little children.”
The U.S. Youth Soccer Association, based in Frisco, Tex., said Friday it now mandates criminal background checks for coaches and provides sex abuse awareness training.
“This reprehensible incident is deeply troubling, and our hearts go out to the victim,” the association said in a statement Friday. “Upon learning of the allegations, we worked closely and swiftly with our Member State Association where the incident occurred to ensure that the individual had been removed from his position to eliminate any possibility of further misconduct.”
The coach, Emanuele Fabrizio, pleaded guilty in August to one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child and one count of lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 14 as part of a deal with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. He as 37 at the time and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Fabrizio, who came to Silicon Valley from Italy and worked as an engineer at PayPal, volunteered for the West Valley Youth Soccer League, which includes youth players from West San Jose, Campbell, and portions of Saratoga, Los Gatos and Cupertino.
Emanuele Fabrizio, a Sunnyvale youth soccer coach, was arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl on his soccer team. Courtesy of Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety.
Authorities said Fabrizio abused the girl from May 2011 until March 2012 when her father called police. They said he had sex with her twice, kissed her at least 20 times and engaged in other sexual activity multiple times. They also said he had child pornography of the girl and had multiple inappropriate sexual conversations with her.
The lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial Monday in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Estey said.
The soccer league had argued it didn’t have a duty to require that its local affiliates conduct background checks on all coaches, but an appellate court disagreed.
While the league did not mandate that its affiliates conduct background checks, many of them did.
When Fabrizio in 2010 volunteered for a coaching position at West Valley Youth Soccer League, he was only asked to declare on his application whether he had ever been convicted of a felony, a crime of violence or a crime against a person.
Fabrizio did not mention on his application that he was convicted in 2006 of domestic violence and battery against his wife, and although he authorized the league to check his record, no background check was done.
The league acknowledged that the domestic violence conviction would have disqualified Fabrizio. But the league argued that even if a background check was done, the domestic violence conviction might not have showed up because Fabrizio had obtained a judicial order setting aside the conviction. The player’s lawyers argued that experts would testify that despite the conviction being set aside, it still would have shown up in a standard background check.
The league also disputed the nature and extent of the harm to the girl.
In court papers, her lawyers argued she suffered “horrific emotional and psychological injuries stemming from the abuse, including suicidal thoughts, anger outbursts, extreme anxiety and fear, and insomnia.”
They said at one point, she carved the letter “M” — for “Manny,” Fabrizio’s nickname — into her belly with a pair of scissors. Court papers describe her being taunted by classmates over the relationship with her coach and said her Catholic faith, athletics, school work and relationships with family and friends all suffered as she tried to grapple with the abuse. Her parents died in 2017, compounding her suffering.
“It’s horrifying,” Estey said. “It’s one of the worst damage or harm cases I’ve worked with. But she’s very resilient. She’s going to college. But she’s been through a lot.”