Furlong goes all-out in court of public opinion

Newspaper dropped from defamation lawsuit, reporter anxious for trial

John Furlong’s public relations campaign to rescue his reputation moved eastward with 100 days to go until the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

The chief of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics organization traveled to Toronto on Oct. 29 to do more interviews. His lawyer threatened the organizer of an international sports media conference in Denmark with a defamation lawsuit.

To catch-up on how Furlong’s public relations blitz began, read my story from The Tyee analyzing his well-planned and orchestrated TV appearances on Oct. 28 (Furlong narrows legal battle, tells his side on TV).

There was no “Mike Wallace moment” for Global anchor Chris Gailus on BC1, who had the first local news interview with Furlong since the Georgia Straight expose on Furlong broke Sept. 27, 2012. Gailus did not read, on-air, any of the court-filed accusations by people who claimed they were victims of Furlong’s alleged physical and sexual abuse, nor did he ask Furlong, point-blank, questions based on the specific allegations. Furlong took control and didn’t let go. There was no concession and no confession. You can watch the entire BC1 special here.

There were at least three criminal complaints levelled against Furlong alleging he physically and sexually abused children in his care at Immaculata Catholic elementary school in Burns Lake, B.C. in 1969 and 1970.

Furlong finally released an April 12 email from the RCMP received by his lawyer, dismissing the Beverly Abraham complaint. On April 11, Furlong’s third wife Deborah Sharp Furlong died after a head-on car crash on a rural road near their County Wexford home.

While the RCMP has closed the file on the Abraham complaint, it doesn’t necessarily mean Furlong is in the clear from a criminal or civil standpoint. In July, lawyer Jason Gratl filed civil lawsuits on behalf of Abraham and another woman, Grace West. A third came in September when a male claimed Furlong anally raped him at Immaculata when he was a nine-year-old. Furlong denies all the allegations. None of the allegations has been proven in court. But the question is, when will Furlong’s defamation lawsuit get to court?

If it gets to court, the Georgia Straight will no longer be a defendant — despite the lack of public apology or retraction by the publication. In fact, the story that started it all remains online. Furlong said he dropped that part of the action in favour of escalating his action against Ontario freelance journalist Laura Robinson, the author of the expose, for alleged malice.

Furlong issued his “Enough is Enough” rant on his website on Oct. 29, targeting Robinson as his enemy number one. The rant said, in-part:

“My defamation case against Laura Robinson will continue and be escalated – she is the perpetrator of these defamatory allegations. She continues to defame me today and this will no longer go unchallenged. Ms. Robinson has a two decade-long pattern of inaccuracy in her writing. Her words have hurt innocent people. I will file those documents to amend my legal case against her in the coming days and weeks…

“Laura Robinson’s unproven written and verbal allegations against me were instantly deemed newsworthy and were widely reported on and quoted. And because those false allegations were in a court document, it was incorrectly assumed they could be reported — and repeated — with impunity. This put me and my family under the most horrible and vicious scrutiny, exposing us to continuing humiliation, ridicule, and destroyed our privacy.

“I have always respected the courts and media as foundations of our society. The women and men in them do their best to bring about truth, fairness and justice. But I ask any reasonable person to consider what they would do if someone did this to them, or a family member?”

Robinson’s lawyer Bryan Baynham said she wants to get to court to defend her story, but Baynham said Furlong is dragging his feet. No examination for discovery or trial dates have been secured. The escalation, so far, is all in the court of public opinion.

While this happened, Robinson was in Aarhus, Denmark for the Oct. 28-31 Play the Game conference, which is being livestreamed.

In an Oct. 28 email to conference organizers, Furlong’s lawyer John Hunter asked what information Robinson provided them regarding the allegations against Furlong. The carefully worded letter asked Play the Game to “ensure that Ms. Robinson is not given an opportunity at your conference to make further defamatory statements about Mr. Furlong.”

Play the Game director Henrik Brandt told me via email:

“One of the official objectives of Play the Game/Danish Institute for Sports Studies is: ‘to strengthen the ethical foundations of sport and work to improve democracy, transparency and freedom of speech in international sports through the Play the Game conference and other activities.’

“The 8th Play the Game conference takes (place) these days in Aarhus, Denmark. The conference has an open call for abstracts within topics covering a range of ethical and political aspects of sport and society. We can confirm that Laura Robinson has been and still is scheduled to speak as one of app. 150 speakers at the conference. Her presentation is scheduled for Wednesday at 11.30 Danish time in a parallel workshop about investigative sports journalism. Her paper has the title: ‘Truth, Lies and History: John Furlong and Canadian Sports’ Moral (Vacuum)’.

UPDATE: On Oct. 30, Robinson made her presentation at Play the Game. Her speaking notes were posted online by Play the Game. The speaking notes say, in-part:

“Furlong has denied all of the allegations and says the RCMP have found no evidence to support the first sexual abuse claim. To date dozens of former students of Furlong have either signed affidavits or on-the-record statements about his physical, psychological and racial abuse. His second wife, who was common-law and legally changed her name to Furlong, filed a multi-page statement about his physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Women who had been girls in Hostel #2 where Furlong was a hostel supervisor along with his first wife, Margaret, gave on- the-record statements about his frequent physical abuse of her. Other students made on-the- record statements saying the girls from Hostel #2 used to tell them about the beatings.

“Furlong filed his Statement of Claim against me and the Georgia Straight on November 28, 2012. We followed with our Responses in January 2013. By then the amount of people who alleged abuse was overwhelming. My January 18 response included eighteen witnesses who described Furlong’s abuse of children, references to at least five other students who the witnesses say regularly were abused by Furlong, and four witnesses who made statements about his violence towards his first wife Margaret Furlong and/or his second wife Dayle Furlong. There are many others who chose to stay off-the-record, but corroborated what the witnesses wrote. Each time I go back to Northern B.C. there is at least one more witness waiting to speak with me. There was a groundswell of voices, but also a groundswell of pain.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the norm, not only for Furlong’s former students, who were not able to watch the lead up to the Olympics or the games themselves for fear of seeing him on TV, but for many other survivors of residential school who were reminded of the person who abused them as they watched Furlong deny everything.”

“Thanks very much to Play the Game for believing in freedom of expression and not caving into demands of censorship,” Robinson said via email.

“I hope the one thing Mr. Furlong is telling the truth about is that he wants to move this forward. He has stalled this case at every juncture.”

UPDATE: Just before 3 p.m. Pacific time on Oct. 30, Robinson’s lawyer Baynham issued the following statement by Robinson:

Setting the Record Straight:

1. The outstanding action for defamation concerns the conduct of Mr. Furlong when he taught and coached in Burns Lake and Prince George and the news story published about Mr. Furlong in the Georgia Straight. It is not about either my personal life or the news stories I have written in the past.

2. I did not bring the allegations of sexual abuse of Beverly Abraham to the attention of the RCMP. Ms. Abraham personally filed the complaint.

3. The RCMP investigation does not show Mr. Furlong’s innocence as he alleges in his statement and in his various interviews with the media over the last few days. As reported in several media stories, RCMP Sgt. Rob Vermeulen has said “the overall investigation remains open.”

4. Neither I nor my counsel have “used the courts as a platform… to publish… false accusations.” I stand behind the facts set out in my response and look forward to proving each and every fact at trial.

5. Mr. Furlong has done nothing to push the case for trial. If he was serious about having his name cleared he could have issued a notice of trial immediately after filing the Notice of Civil Claim in November 2012. Eleven months later he still has not obtained a trial date. He has not even set a date to conduct an oral discovery of me.

Taking Action: 

I have instructed my counsel to take the following steps:

1. Apply to court to have Mr. Furlong’s claim dismissed for want of prosecution;

2. Apply to court for an order striking those portions of Mr. Furlong’s reply that attack me personally and professionally.

I value my hard-earned reputation as a freelance investigative journalist. I also value freedom of speech and freedom of the press. My personal reputation, my reputation as a journalist, and my ability to earn a living have been seriously damaged by Mr. Furlong’s vindictive personal attacks starting in September 2012 and culminating in the onslaught this week.

I will not bow to the pressure being applied in the media, nor Mr. Furlong’s threat to “escalate” the defamation action. I stand by what I wrote and the response filed on my behalf in the action. I look forward to the truth coming out and the judgment which will restore my good name and reputation.

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