Former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong came out swinging Thursday in response to reports that he allegedly abused students at a B.C. school where he taught more than 40 years ago.
"I have been accused of physical abuse and — apparently, within the last hour — sexual abuse. I want you to know I categorically deny absolutely any wrongdoing," the 61-year-old told a packed news conference in Vancouver.
The accusations from at least eight students relate to Furlong’s year of teaching physical education at the Immaculata Elementary School, a Roman Catholic non-residential institution in Burns Lake, B.C., about 600 kilometres north of Vancouver. The school no longer exists.
Former student Cathy Woodgate said nuns and staff at the school, including Furlong, doled out physical and verbal abuse.
"He would have a ball or a stick in his hand and he would target the slowest people and I was one of the slowest people, so I got hit most of the time. But there was more people that got hit," Woodgate told CBC News. "He would yell and nobody could talk back to him. We were all scared of him."
Other students who spoke to CBC News described alleged incidents where Furlong called students "stupid Indians," used a strap or yardstick to discipline pupils and hit one child with a basketball so hard they fell over.
CBC News has confirmed that Furlong was in Burns Lake as early as 1969, even though his official biography and speeches he has given suggest he arrived in Canada from Ireland in 1974.
Burns Lake not mentioned
In his autobiography, Patriot Hearts, Furlong remembers "a fall day in 1974 when my wife and I bundled up our son and daughter and boarded a plane to Canada … Soon I was in Prince George [B.C.] starting a new life."
The fact that Furlong’s memoir does not mention Burns Lake is an omission that angers many former Immaculata students. He taught at the school during the 1969-70 school year.
"When he was in Burns Lake, he was a really mean person," said Ronnie Alec.
Those who didn’t play basketball properly got a slap on the head or sometimes kicked from behind, Alec alleges.
Immaculata Elementary School was staffed by lay teachers known as Frontier Apostles, recruited from around the world.
Furlong arrived at Immaculata in 1969 and also worked part-time in a bakery in the town. In 1970, he married teacher Margaret Cook and they moved to Prince George, where he taught at another Roman Catholic day school, Prince George College.
Corporal punishment was legal in B.C. until 1973. And while some former students recall Furlong as a good sports coach, others tell a different story.
Former student Beverly Abraham said long-buried memories recently surfaced and she went to RCMP and reported allegations of sexual abuse by Furlong.
"The flashback got so bad that a couple months ago, I went to police," Abraham told CBC News.
"He started with my legs and then putting his hand up and he was saying, ‘You know, you're special to me. I don't know what it is about you. You're very special to me,’ and he put his hand where it wasn't supposed to go in my privates."
Abraham's recollection is uncorroborated and she is the only former student who alleged to CBC News anything beyond physical and verbal abuse.
No charges have been laid against Furlong and none of the allegations made against him have been proven in court.
Alleges blackmail attempt
At his Vancouver press conference Thursday, Furlong acknowledged he worked in Burns Lake for a brief time, but made an allegation of his own. He said someone once demanded money to make some allegations go away.
Furlong also said he intends to defend his reputation in court.
"I am proud of the work I have done and the time I spent in the North and across the country working with First Nation and Aboriginal communities," he said.
Furlong would not answer questions at the news conference, saying he could not respond because of potential legal actions.
CBC News has also learned that just weeks before the Vancouver Olympics began, Furlong met privately with a former student who alleged he strapped her hands so badly that they blistered.
Furlong's lawyer told CBC News that the meeting was amicable, but that Furlong denied any abuse of her or anyone else.