British Columbia

John Furlong blames article for wife's death

Former Olympics CEO takes stand at B.C. Supreme Court civil trial to defend himself in defamation lawsuit.

Former Olympics CEO takes stand at B.C. Supreme Court civil trial in defamation lawsuit

Former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong says allegations he abused children as a teacher in Burns Lake cost him his health, his reputation and his wife. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Former Olympics CEO John Furlong says he blames a damaging Georgia Straight article for the death of his wife.

Furlong testified in B.C. Supreme Court that Deborah Furlong died in a car accident in April 2013 while the two were in Ireland escaping stress from publication of allegations he abused children in Burns Lake more than 40 years earlier.

"It cost me my wife," he said.

The two had been married 299 days.

Furlong says a doctor at a Dublin hospital told him she was dead: "It was the most broken I think I've ever felt."

'One of the worst mornings of my life'

At times emotional and at times testy, Furlong took the stand in his own defence at the start of the second week of a landmark civil defamation suit.

The reporter who wrote the September 2012 article, Laura Robinson, claims Furlong defamed her in his responses to the piece, implying she was unethical, unprofessional and motivated by a personal vendetta.

Furlong described a mounting sense of horror leading up to publication, as Robinson contacted personal and business associates, detailing allegations of abuse and asking for comment.

"It became very clear that this was becoming nasty," he said. "I thought she'd already decided."

Freelance journalist Laura Robinson is suing former Olympics CEO John Furlong for allegedly defaming her in his responses to her article. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The Georgia Straight hits the streets on Thursdays; Furlong said he talked with his family in the week before the article appeared. But his wife woke up early and disappeared.

He said he became worried, but then she returned and admitted to having followed the newspaper's delivery van around the city.

She said she spent the morning emptying newspaper boxes and loading them into their truck. It was filled to the ceiling with copies of the free alternative weekly.

"It was one of the worst mornings of my life," Furlong said.

'I did no such thing'

Although Robinson's article only contained allegations of verbal and physical abuse, Furlong said he was told an allegation of sexual abuse was circulating on the internet by the time he held a press conference.

He said he thought sexually assaulting a child was the worst thing a person could be accused of "next to killing someone."

Furlong said he remembered his time in Burns Lake fondly. He said he was approached about the opportunity to teach physical education at Immaculata Catholic school in the late 1960s while he was a teenager in Dublin.

He said he coached hockey and had to buy himself a book to learn a game that was as foreign to him as Canada itself.

"Did you beat any children?" asked Furlong's lawyer, John Hunter.

"I did no such thing," he replied.

Furlong said he used his executive powers with the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee to route the torch run in 2010 through Burns Lake.

'I know you did it'

He defended his choice to leave his teaching years out of his book; he said the story of his return as a new immigrant, greeted by a customs agent who said "Welcome to Canada. Make us better" was a better fit for the publisher.

"My time in Burns Lake was precious to me," he said. "It's a massive leap to abusing children."

John Hunter is representing John Furlong against a civil claim alleging the former Vancouver Olympics CEO defamed journalist Laura Robinson. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

In the wake of the article's publication, Furlong says someone spat at him on the street. He said another person accosted him and shouted: "I know you did it."

He said his stepson was sent home from school after defending him in a fight and his children and grandchildren were taunted.

"It made it difficult to live in the city that I love and helped develop," he said.

Furlong said the stress became too much for his wife, who confronted a stranger in a checkout line who was reading an article about him and made derogatory comments.

That's when they decided to go to Ireland.

Denies extortion claim

Three people sued Furlong in the wake of the article, claiming to have been sexually abused former students. One later withdrew her claim and two others were dismissed after the claimants were proven not to have attended Immaculata.

Furlong said he was first approached with an allegation of physical abuse in 2009, and was told that it could be made to go away for $5,000.

He reported the threat to police, meeting with the woman making the allegation before the Olympics.

He later referred to the incident in his first press conference.

As part of her lawsuit, Robinson claims Furlong implied she was trying to extort money.

But in a testy exchange with Robinson's lawyer, Furlong defended himself.

"I never said any such thing," he said. "You were wrong then, and you're wrong now."

Furlong's testimony continues Tuesday. His lawyer also plans to call the nun who acted as principal at Immaculata.