British Columbia

John Furlong investigation by reporter 'very suspect,' says memory expert

An expert on human memory says journalist Laura Robinson conducted a flawed investigation after she travelled to Burns Lake, B.C., to interview potential abuse victims about John Furlong.

Professor says Laura Robinson erred in giving witnesses dates, locations and Olympic CEO's name

Former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong arrives at B.C. Supreme Court after the lunch break during the second week of a defamation case against him. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

An expert on human memory says journalist Laura Robinson conducted a flawed investigation after she travelled to Burns Lake, B.C., to interview potential abuse victims about John Furlong.

UBC psychology professor John Yuille questioned a flyer Laura Robinson posted in the community while researching a damning 2012 Georgia Straight article on the former Olympics CEO's time as a teacher at a Catholic school in 1969.

The poster said she was a "journalist investigating abuse" and was interested in students who "had John Furlong as a phys-ed teacher."

"I'm not a journalist. I don't set journalist standards," Yuille said.

"This is bad investigation — that I know."

Keeping an open mind

Yuille was the final witness Thursday in an unprecedented B.C. Supreme Court trial.

While Furlong was the subject of an article containing allegations he verbally and physically abused children at Immaculata Catholic school, the reporter is suing him for defamation.

Robinson claims he caused her financial and emotional harm by implying she was unprofessional, tried to extort money and was motivated by a personal vendetta.

In his defence, Furlong claims Robinson mounted a sustained attack on his reputation and his life. He argues he was entitled by qualified privilege to respond.

Journalist Laura Robinson claims former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong defamed her in his responses to her Georgia Straight article. (CBC)

Yuille wrote a report for the defence as "an expert in reliable investigations of historical child sexual abuse."

Although the Georgia Straight article did not contain any sexual allegations, Robinson did get an affidavit from a student, Beverly Abraham, who claimed Furlong sexually abused her.

Abraham filed a complaint with RCMP, who investigated and concluded the file without charges because of a lack of consistency and corroboration.

Yuille testified he has given training on investigative techniques to police, social workers and investigators of residential school abuse.

He said he has also conducted studies that show anyone is susceptible to the creation of false memories under certain sets of circumstances. In some cases, subjects created memories of childhood trauma that didn't exist.

'No legacy is so rich as honesty'

Yuille said investigators have to keep an "open mind" to various possibilities.

"The single biggest impediment to effective investigation is interviewer bias," he said.

"The way to keep an open mind is to have alternative explanations and not to have a favourite."

In challenging Yuille's credentials, Robinson's lawyer, Daniel Reid, noted the professor is not a journalist and has not trained journalists.

He also pointed out that police and social workers have to build evidence that will stand up in court.

While Yuille didn't comment directly on Robinson, he was read the wording of the flyer she posted in the Burns Lake band office and the post office before arriving.

"Did you attend Immaculata School or Prince George College? A journalist who is investigating abuse at both schools will be at the Burns Lake band office," the flyer read in part.

"She is interested in students who attended between 1969 and 1976 and had John Furlong as a phys-ed teacher, or had relatives who had him. He was a tall man from Ireland and a Frontier Apostle."

The flyer ended with a quote from William Shakespeare: "No legacy is so rich as honesty."

Yuille said providing a location, dates and a name of a suspected abuser would make any information arising from the investigation "very suspect."

"This makes it no longer possible for that information to come spontaneously from the witness," he said. "The damage has been done."

Witness contamination

Thirty-five people responded to the flyer and were waiting in the band office when Robinson arrived an hour late. Yuille said those circumstances raise the possibility of witness contamination.

"One witness says something about the event that the other witness did not observe," Yuille said.

"That will now become part of their memory."

Robinson ultimately obtained eight sworn affidavits from former students. In the wake of the story, Abraham and two people who were not featured in the article sued Furlong alleging sexual abuse.

Abraham dropped her suit, and the two other claims were dismissed when it emerged neither claimant had attended Immaculata. 

Furlong has maintained his innocence throughout.

Both sides plan to conclude their closing arguments Friday.