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John Furlong 'always kind' to students, nun testifies

06/24/2015 09:34 EDT | Updated 06/24/2016 05:59 EDT
A nun who ran a Burns Lake, B.C., Catholic elementary school where John Furlong taught more than 40 years ago says the former Olympics CEO was "always kind" to his students.

Sister Marie Melling testified Wednesday in B.C. Supreme Court, where Furlong is defending himself against a claim he defamed Laura Robinson, the journalist who wrote an article claiming he abused students at Immaculata school in 1969.

"He treated the children with respect," Melling said. "He was always pleasant."

Furlong arrived in B.C. as a teen

Melling was one of four defence witnesses called on Furlong's behalf; among the others were his romantic partner and an RCMP officer who investigated an allegation of sexual abuse by a former student.

In the September 2012 Georgia Straight article, Robinson reported that eight people had signed affidavits claiming Furlong physically and verbally abused them while they attended the school.

She claims Furlong's responses to her article caused her financial and emotional damage by implying she was unprofessional and motivated by a personal vendetta.

Wearing a matching blue skirt and jacket, Melling said she became a nun in 1958. She said she was principal of Immaculata and taught Grade 7 from 1967 to 1971.

She met Furlong when he was a teenager newly arrived from Dublin as a so-called "frontier apostle" to serve as a gym teacher and part-time janitor.

Corporal punishment was still legal, and Melling said she had concerns the strap was being used too frequently. She said she set up a log to record the names of students and the names of teachers who strapped them.

She said Furlong's name was not in the book.

The only complaint she could recall was a student who said Furlong made them the run up a hill backward.

"I never had physical education, so that was a strange phenomenon for me," she said. "I said, 'You know these are children. We are not training them for the Olympics.'"

Melling said she wasn't aware of any allegations about abuse. She also said Robinson never contacted her about Furlong in advance of publishing her story.

Under cross-examination, Melling admitted she was actually listed as a "superior" — and not a principal. She also said she didn't speak Carrier, the language of the First Nations families whose students attended Immaculata.

"As far as I knew, everyone spoke English," she said.

Robinson approached Furlong's partner

In his defence, Furlong claims he was entitled by qualified privilege to respond in a series of statements and interviews to what amounted to attacks by the journalist.

His partner, Renee Smith-Valade, who worked with Furlong as head of public relations for the Olympics, testified about helping to craft several of the statements.

Robinson's lawyer asked if they "thought it would be a good idea" to attack his client's integrity. Smith-Valade said they wanted to question her credibility.

Smith-Valade also testified that Robinson handed her a hand-written two-page letter on an airplane after the two had a chance meeting in a boarding line.

"I wanted you to know that over 40 of JF's students have come forward about his abuse now," Robinson wrote.

"It is not just the former students of JF who are abused by the silence of those in power, it is also every single abuse victim in Canada."

Smith-Valade said she was "stunned at the contents."

The letter went on to ask Smith-Valade to consider becoming an off-the-record source "as a way of being a member of the human race."

Smith-Valade said she took the letter straight to Furlong's lawyers.

'She's had a very hard life'

In the aftermath of Robinson's article, Furlong faced three civil suits from people claiming to have been sexually abused as students. One was withdrawn and two dismissed after it emerged the claimants hadn't attended Immaculata.

RCMP also conducted an investigation into an allegation of sexual abuse from one claimant, a student named Beverly Abraham.

The officer who investigated the complaint, Cpl. Quinton Mackie, testified the file was closed without charges because Abraham couldn't provide a consistent story or any type of corroboration.

"To this day, I believe that she's had a very hard life," he said. "I don't know the extent of what it was."

Mackie said he wanted to close the file in April 2013, but had to wait until the following December because his superiors wanted an independent team from Alberta to review his work. 

They came up with 28 recommendations; Mackie said many revolved around personal hardships and discipline at the school. As a result, he said, a separate investigation began.

"It appeared that everybody I talked to wanted to discuss their experiences at Immaculata," he said.

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