John Furlong, the former Vancouver Olympic CEO, has come out swinging in his legal response to journalist Laura Robinson’s allegations in court filings that he physically abused a former spouse and sexually assaulted another as well as abused former students at Burns Lake and Prince George, B.C., when he was a volunteer missionary instructor in the late 1960s.
Furlong accused Robinson of waging a “personal vendetta” against him in a volcanic rebuttal filed in the B.C. Supreme Court Friday, July 26, as part of a civil lawsuit by Furlong over a story Robinson wrote for Vancouver’s weekly Georgia Straight newspaper.
“The events alleged are said to have occurred in 1969 and the 1970s but have not been reported in the intervening decades to the Plaintiff (Furlong) or to the authorities by any person involved,” the reply document says. “This is because they never occurred.”
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Robinson’s original story, published in September, 2012, accused Furlong of hiding his past as a Catholic missionary teacher at Immaculata Elementary school in Burns Lake, and later at Prince George College, and that he physically abused several of the aboriginal students who attended. When Furlong filed suit, Robinson used her court-filed defence to level even more serious charges, including the allegations of sexual and spousal abuse.
Now, in a 12-page reply, Furlong and his lawyers accuse Robinson of using her court filing as a way to allow “back-door” publication of defamatory and untrue allegations by using the privilege against lawsuit that court documents have. “[Robinson’s] allegations did not meet the normal evidence required for publication by a journalist working in media,” Furlong alleges. “However, by placing them before the court, the defendant Robinson understood her defamatory allegations could, and would be published, because the plaintiff is a well-known public figure . . .”
Robinson’s lawyer Bryan Baynham told Maclean’s, “Laura stands behind her story 100 per cent.”
He said in an interview he and his client are “shocked” that it took Furlong and his legal team six months to file a reply. While Baynham conceded some of the delay was due to the death of Furlong’s wife in April, he said there were three months before then when Furlong could have replied. “He’s way late,” Baynham said. “We question whether or not he’s serious about taking the case on to trial.” His client, he said, wants her day in court. He said he is “shocked and appalled” that Furlong questions his client’s integrity as a journalist. “There is no basis for a personal attack.”
In the filing, Furlong attacks Robinson’s reputation, saying she has a “historical pattern of serious inaccuracies, reckless regard for the truth and later retraction of allegations she has made both in the media and in the courts against subjects in her professional reporting and business life.”
Among the examples of Robinson’s “errors” that Furlong cites:
• A 1994 story in the Globe and Mail that accused former Canadian national men’s basketball coach Ken Shields of racism. The allegations were unfounded, a subsequent investigation concluded, and were retracted by the Globe.
• Allegations of sexual harassment against a former principle of Green College at the University of British Columbia—claims Robinson subsequently withdrew.
• A 2000 article she wrote for Chatelaine magazine in which she alleged members of the Vancouver Fire Department used private lines at their firehall to set up sexual encounters with women—allegations that were “discredited” after an investigation by the department.
• Robinson’s claim in her lawsuit response that Furlong had a “violent history” with his former wife, Margaret. Within a day of the claim being made public, Margaret “publicly stated those allegations were false and defamatory.”
Furlong also claims he made no attempt to hide his earlier visit to Canada in his bestselling Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics that Changed a Country. That book, which he co-wrote, mentions only his permanent move to Canada in 1974 with his then wife and two children. He said Patriot Hearts “was written as a history of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and was never intended as a chronological personal biography.”
And he said his “true history” as a teacher at both Immaculata and later Prince George College was that he was “well-liked by the students” at both schools. At the Prince George school he said he was presented with a trophy that the students had purchased to acknowledge his contribution as a physical education instructor “and his status as one of the student body’s most admired teachers.”
This has been a difficult year for Furlong, who, prior to the allegations, had enjoyed a stellar reputation for his work as Olympic chief, and had parlayed that into a lucrative public speaking career.
In January, members of his family spoke out against the “obscene” innuendo leveled by Robinson. The stories “portray a character whom none of us recognizes,” said a statement by all five of his children, and two ex-wives, Margaret and Gail. “The public should be deeply concerned at the power of a single journalist whose words can smash into a family like a wrecking ball,” they said.
In April, his wife, Deborah Sharp Furlong, was killed in a traffic accident while driving alone when the two were visiting Furlong’s native Ireland.
On July 24, two former students from Immaculata filed a civil suit in B.C. Supreme Court against Furlong and the Roman Catholic diocese in both Vancouver and Prince George, accusing him of physical and sexual abuse, and the church of failing to protect its students.
None of the claims and responses to either lawsuit has been tested in court.
Furlong has yet to file a defence in the latest case. However one of the women who filed suit, Beverly Mary Abraham, was also named as an accuser in Robinson’s court filing. Furlong, in his July 27 response to Robinson, said the RCMP has previously found Abraham’s claims “have no basis in fact.”
He quotes the RCMP saying there were “inconsistencies” in Abraham’s claims. Later a thorough investigation found “nothing to substantiate the complaint or allegation,” Furlong’s brief states. Furlong’s lawyer was informed that no charges would be laid in that case.
No date has been set for the civil trial, which is expected to be one of the most bitterly fought libel cases in recent memory.
This story was updated July 26 at 8:12 p.m. with comments from Laura Robinson’s lawyer.