Glentoran Football Club has defended the signing of former Cliftonville striker Jay Donnelly.
The 25-year-old served a three-month prison sentence last year for distributing an indecent image of a child.
Glentoran manager Mick McDermott says the footballer deserves an opportunity to rebuild his life and career.
A women’s group has said they are “appalled” and “disappointed” at the decision.
In June 2016, Donnelly took a photograph of a 16-year-old girl while they were having sex.
The photograph was sent to a friend and a WhatsApp group that included fellow Cliftonville players. It was then leaked and appeared on social media.
In November 2018 Donnelly admitted the charge of distributing an indecent image of a child and was sentenced to four months in jail the following year, which was later reduced to three months.
Mr McDermott said while neither he nor the club could condone Donnelly’s behaviour, he had “served a harsh punishment for what he did”.
“Jay has made amends for that, he has served his time, he has apologised for it,” he said.
“He knows he made a critical mistake, a lapse in judgment at that time.
“That’s not to diminish the impact that it had on the young lady at time by no means, we have to remember there was a victim in this case.”
In a statement on the Glentoran FC website, Donnelly said he was “humbled” to be given the opportunity.
“I wish to express my complete remorse and regret at the actions that led to my conviction in 2019,” he said.
“Age and immaturity are not an excuse for an action that I now realise to have been very hurtful and damaging to the woman and her family. “
He added that he had agreed with the club to undertake “counselling and guidance on appropriate behaviour”.
Debate is only beginning
Analysis by Mark Simpson, BBC News NI
Glentoran were well aware that the signing of Jay Donnelly would provoke a debate.
When the club announced the signing on Twitter, they blocked all replies to the post.
They have sent Donnelly out on loan, and will be hoping that when he returns to Glentoran in January the controversy will have receded.
In the meantime, Donnelly is being asked by the media to agree to an interview. After his conviction in 2019, he turned down an interview request outside court.
In a statement on the Glentoran website, he said: “I can guarantee everyone both in football and society that I have learned from my mistake.”
The club are hoping that will be the end of the matter, but it seems the debate is only just beginning.
The news of the signing has sparked an angry reaction from women’s group, the Belfast Feminist Network.
It said it was “appalled” at Glentoran’s decision and “disappointed” that Donnelly would be “held up as a role model when he is anything but”.
The group also expressed anger at the wording used by the football club to announce the signing.
“Even in the midst of trying to acknowledge the hurt caused by Donnelly’s crime Glentoran has chosen to use language that plays down and makes excuses for his behaviour and attempts to shift blame on to others,” they said.
“Possessing sexual photos of anyone under 18 is a crime. Sharing that photo with any other individual is a crime.”