VANCOUVER - Former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong says the reporter behind an article that accused him of abusing students 40 years ago while teaching in northern British Columbia wrote the story as part of a malicious campaign to discredit him.
Furlong, whose role at the top of the 2010 Olympic organizing committee saw him inducted as a member of the Order of Canada, filed a statement of claim this week alleging his reputation has been irreparably harmed by the Georgia Straight newspaper, reporter Laura Robinson, publisher Daniel McLeod and editor Charlie Smith.
The weekly newspaper published a story Sept. 27 that quoted eight former students who alleged Furlong was physically and verbally abusive while he was a volunteer teacher in northern B.C. in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
None of it is true, Furlong's lawyers write in their statement of claim, as they describe how repeated warnings that the accusations were false and publishing them would trigger a lawsuit failed to convince Robinson and the Straight to back down.
The Georgia Straight was also aware that someone had attempted to blackmail Furlong over the same accusations in 2009, demanding $5,000 to make the story "go away," the statement says, but the paper published the story anyway.
"The Georgia Straight article is false and defamatory," says the 22-page statement of claim, filed Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court.
"During his time as a teacher, the plaintiff (Furlong) never engaged in abuse of his students, nor did the plaintiff engage in bullying or racial taunting. ... Robinson maliciously intended to injure the plaintiff's reputation and cause the plaintiff harm."
Robinson said in an email she couldn't comment on the lawsuit because she hadn't yet consulted with a lawyer, while McLeod and Smith did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
The statement of claim, which contains unproven allegations, paints Robinson as someone with a grudge against both Furlong and the Olympics, spending several years writing articles in various publications that were "sharply critical" of the Games.
Those articles, the statement says, complained about a range of issues, including the Vancouver Olympic committee's treatment of aboriginals and women, its respect of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, its environmental record and its "old boys' club" mentality.
She first approached Furlong's publisher about abuse allegations in April 2012, the statement says, a year after she wrote an article for the website playthegame.org that accused Furlong of omitting from his biography details of his teaching career after he immigrated to Canada in the mid-1970s.
But the new story she was working on, dealing with a period a few years earlier, was far more serious.
Robinson contacted Furlong's publisher with accusations from a former student, who claimed he physically and verbally abused her while at a school in Burns Lake, a remote community about 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver, after Furlong first started teaching there in 1969.
A lawyer for Furlong promptly replied with the first of several warnings that the allegations were false, the statement says.
Robinson then obtained signed affidavits from eight people who said they were former students and made similar allegations.
She sent those affidavits not just to Furlong's lawyer, but also to several of his friends and colleagues, the statement says, "with the true intent of discrediting the plaintiff."
Robinson also filed a report with the RCMP related to one student's allegations. The RCMP investigated and concluded in August there were inconsistencies in the story, according to Furlong's statement of claim.
Earlier this month, Robinson sent two emails to a media relations staff member and the CEO of Own the Podium — an athlete development agency that Furlong chairs, the statement of claim says. The emails alleged Robinson had talked to even more students about Furlong's teaching career and described Furlong as "violent and a racist," says the document.
The resulting controversy has embarrassed Furlong's family, damaged Furlong's reputation and hurt his career, the statement of claim says. Furlong says the story prompted the cancellation of several paid speaking events.
"As a result of the Georgia Straight article, the plaintiff has been brought into public scandal and contempt and suffered, and will continue to suffer, grave damage to his character and reputation," the statement says.
The statement also accuses Robinson of falsely suggesting Furlong distorted stories about his family in Ireland for no other purpose than to further cast doubt on Furlong's character.
Furlong's statement of claim does not touch on an accusation of sexual abuse published by the CBC on the same day as the Straight story. The public broadcaster quoted a former female student who claimed she had recently recovered memories of inappropriate touching.
Furlong denied sexual abuse at a news conference that day, but has not said whether he plans to pursue legal action over that accusation.
At the same news conference, Furlong said the newspaper didn't try to contact him about the allegations. His statement of claim does not repeat that claim and details a number of communications between Furlong's lawyers and Robinson before the story went to print.
Most of the allegations involve Furlong's time as a volunteer teacher at Immaculata Catholic School in Burns Lake. Immaculata was a religious school run by the Oblates, a missionary order, but it was not an Indian residential school. Students, including non-natives, attended by day.
After teaching and coaching at Immaculata for 14 months, he moved to another religious school in Prince George.
Furlong said he never hid or purposely omitted speaking about his time teaching in Burns Lake or Prince George. He said it didn't appear in his biography because it wasn't related to the Olympics and because it was brief and uneventful.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly said the playthegame.org article was published in 2012.