Olympic Battle: John Furlong fights to clear his name while accusations swirl
When John Furlong helped organize the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he was lauded as a hero. Nearly four years later he is trying to reclaim his life, to fight back against allegations of sexual abuse brought against him last year.
"It's the seventeen worst months. I couldn't describe how bad it's been," he said in an interview with CTV's Chief Anchor and Senior Editor, Lisa LaFlamme.
Furlong's was a fairy-tale story of success, repeated to millions who watched the Olympics on TV and in his later memoir, Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics That Changed a Country. The immigrant kid from Ireland arrived in Canada in 1974, greeted by the customs officer with the words "Welcome to Canada. Make us better."
He led the Olympic effort and basked in the reflected glory of the games many consider the best ever. Afterward he was awarded the Order of Canada, appointed to corporate boards and took over the Vancouver Whitecaps.
"I love what I did. I'm still very proud of it," he said.
Then it all changed when, in September 2012, a weekly Vancouver alternative newspaper, The Georgia Straight, challenged Furlong's life-story, pointing out the he'd actually come to Canada in 1969 as a Catholic missionary and had worked in the northern British Columbia communities of Burns Lake and Prince George as a volunteer gym teacher.
Written by freelance journalist Laura Robinson, the article claimed Furlong had physically and verbally abused First Nations students at the schools. Eight former students had signed affidavits about their experiences at Immaculata Elementary in Burns Lake, B.C., in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They alleged a young Furlong would hit and kick them, as well as make racist comments, while serving as a physical education teacher.
"The discrepancy about the time which he came to Canada was very important," said Robinson at the time. "When I went to Burns Lake, former students brought year books that showed he clearly was in Canada sixty-nine to seventy and that he'd taught at Immaculata as a gym teacher."
At a hastily called news conference Furlong defended himself and his reputation: "I want you to know I categorically deny absolutely any wrongdoing and I believe that the RCMP in looking into this matter will discredit the complaint entirely because it just did not happen."
"It got plastered all over the place as if it was true," said Furlong in his interview. "And you know, Lisa, with all due respect, if it's on television and if it's on the front page of the paper, huge numbers of people believe it. Well getting that off your back is very, very difficult.
"I didn't put it in the book because I didn't think it was relevant, but it's a pretty long leap to say because they didn't put something in the book, that something terrible happened."
But his timeline was the least of Furlong's worries. At first he was accused of physical and verbal abuse. In July 2013, two women -- Beverly Abraham and Grace West -- filed separate civil lawsuits accusing Furlong of sexual abuse. A third student filed a third lawsuit in September 2013, alleging he, too, was abused.
In court filings Furlong denied that "he sexually molested or physically abused or engaged in any appropriate conduct."
"The question is almost insulting," said Furlong, when asked about the allegations. He also said he did not remember either West or Abraham.
"When this was handed to the RCMP for the first time, I thought, first of all, it would last a week. I thought a week and it would be over. But it's (been) 17 months of living in absolute hell."
He added: "I know that I did nothing to any of those kids. I'm sorry if they've had challenges or difficulties in their life. But I have never, ever, ever inappropriately touched anybody in my life."
The Roman Catholic diocese that ran the Burns Lake School has also denied the allegations. In a statement of defence filed over the summer, the Diocese of Prince George says it has no record of Grace West or the third complainant even being at the school.
"I don't know what is behind (the lawsuits) ... because they didn't happen."
Furlong has found the accusations about his past in Northern B.C. particularly painful after what, he insists, has been a long and strong relationship with the province's First Nations. He made sure they were included in Olympic celebrations and routed the torch run through Burns Lake and Prince George.
"Every second that I have spent working with the aboriginal communities, I've loved it. I've not a single regret about it," he said.
Soon after the Georgia Straight article was published, Furlong filed his own lawsuit against the newspaper, as well as against the freelance reporter, Laura Robinson.
Furlong has since dropped the lawsuit against the paper to focus solely on his case against Robinson. In court filings he accused Robinson of having a "personal vendetta" against him and alleged she has "an historical pattern of inaccurate reporting".
Furlong has singled out two stories written by Robinson. The first involved racism charges against former national basketball coach Ken Shields. An independent investigation concluded there had been no basis for the allegations. Three months after the report was first published, The Globe and Mail newspaper issued a full retraction.
In another article Robinson claimed phone lines at Vancouver fire halls were being used to set up sexual encounters with women. An inquiry found no evidence substantiating the allegation. The phone lines were actually for fire fighters to call their families.
Also vexing was Robinson's own legal filing, where she claimed Furlong "physically and psychologically assaulted and abused his (first) wife" and, later, "psychologically abused and raped" his second common-law wife.
Both ex-wives and eleven family members came to Furlong's defence and, in a statement, called the unsubstantiated claims an "obscene" … "misuse of journalistic privilege and licence."
"She's made life as hell for me as you could possibly make it, and I don't understand the inspiration," Furlong said. "But today, I've got to the point where enough is enough.
"My goal now is to never let this happen to another person, to not let anybody face what we have faced," he added. "I'm going to escalate my court case against Laura Robinson because of what she's done and because I'm not alone."
In April 2013 Furlong's lawyer was sent an e-mail that apparently cleared him of the accusations made by one of the students. "With respect to the sexual abuse allegation brought forward by Beverly Abraham through Laura Robinson, I can tell you that the RCMP have concluded their investigation … and have found nothing to substantiate the complaint."
According to Furlong, in mid-October he was told by his lawyer that the RCMP had found nothing to substantiate the other allegations.
"They have told my legal counsel that the report that they're preparing is consistent with the one they wrote in April," he said. "They'll issue it when they are good and ready. I'm certain that that's what you're going to hear. And I always thought that."
In an e-mail the RCMP told CTV "the file remains open."
For her part Laura Robinson remains unbowed.
"There's been a media blast of Mr. Furlong repeating his denials," she said in an interview with W5. "And so what is happening now those students are being re-traumatized, yet one more time, because he's taken to the airwaves and denounced them and denounced me."
Robinson was in Aarhus, Denmark, attending the Play the Game sports conference to present a paper entitled "Truth, Lies and History: John Furlong and Canadian Sport's Moral Vacuum."
"We need to believe to what First Nations people are telling us. We need to listen to them. We need to stop pretending that our own history in Canada didn't exist," said Robinson.
Furlong vows to continue the legal fight to clear his name.
"At some point you have to say, you know what, enough already. And it is enough already. It's a sickening thing to have to be there and you know, a person could be fit to scream.
"But you know, what are you going to do? You have to find a way to, to live and move on. And this is the way I'm choosing to do it."