UNCW quietly settles with former women’s soccer coach accused of sexual assault
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The University of North Carolina at Wilmington reached an out-of-court settlement earlier this year with former longtime women’s soccer coach Paul Cairney, whose at-will employment was discontinued in 2018 after a two-decades-old allegation of sexual assault sparked a Title IX inquiry and criminal investigation.
A key feature of the agreement includes a signed reference letter the university must provide to any employers interested in hiring Cairney which only broadly mentions Cairney’s separation.
The agreement releases the university from any claims or potential claims related to Cairney’s employment and discontinuation, while also denying any liability for those claims.
In December 2017, Cairney became the subject of a Title IX inquiry by the university after it learned of a sexual assault allegation dating back to 1996.
The alleged victim in the incident was a 15-year-old girl attending an on-campus women’s soccer camp. The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office was notified about the alleged incident in 2007, prompting an investigation into indecent liberties with a child. But the case was ultimately closed due to insufficient evidence, according to a spokesperson for the agency.
A second allegation of sexual assault was re-discovered during the university’s Title IX inquiry. The allegation was initially emailed to UNCW in 2004, which at the time resulted in a week-long internal investigation that ultimately cleared Cairney of any wrongdoing.
The discovery of the second allegation prompted District Attorney Ben David to request the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to review the allegations, so any victims could “speak freely with independent investigators.”
Amid the SBI’s investigation, on May 25, 2018, UNCW concluded its Title IX inquiry into the matter, the findings of which remain confidential under state law.
“We can’t release details of any action based on the confidentiality of state personnel records under NCGS 126-22 et seq,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email.
Less than a month later, UNCW discontinued Cairney’s at-will employment, again citing state law to withhold circumstances of his departure.
David announced Cairney would not face criminal charges just two days later, at least in part because the alleged victim in the 2004 claim could not be found.
Following the closure of the criminal investigation, Cairney, through his attorney, said he was weighing legal options against the university.
Ultimately, UNCW and Cairney settled for $50,000, $42,000 going to Cairney for “damages” and $8,000 to his attorney. The agreement, which was signed by both Cairney and UNCW Chancellor Jose V. Sartarelli in May 2019, resolved the matter out of court and prevents Cairney from filing any formal legal action related to his employment and separation from the university.
Notably, the agreement also designated Athletic Director Jimmy Bass as the primary point of contact for potential job references related to Cairney.
Bass’ reference letter (which can be viewed at the bottom of this story) for Cairney mostly details his and his student-athlete’s accomplishments during his tenure as head coach, including his three Coach of the Year awards in 2006, 2008 and 2015.
The final line of the letter makes the only reference to Cairney’s departure:
“Mr. Cairney was employed on an ‘at will’ basis. In June of 2018, UNCW elected not to renew his engagement. We wish Mr. Cairney the best in the future.”
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