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Georgia Straight files defence against Furlong defamation lawsuit

The publisher of a September 2012 expose on John Furlong claimed the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics chief executive did not honestly recount his personal history and suffered no loss from allegations that he physically abused, bullied and racially taunted aboriginal students.

The Georgia Straight also claims Furlong damaged himself by self-publishing the substance of the story at a Sept. 27, 2012 news conference where he vehemently denied the charges.

"He is therefore solely responsible for the republication which resulted," said the statement of defence, filed Jan. 14 in B.C. Supreme Court. "If the plaintiff has suffered loss, damage and expense (which is not admitted but denied), it was caused by the plaintiff's self-publication of the inflammatory sexual abuse accusation and not by the allegedly defamatory meanings complained of."

Ontario freelance journalist Laura Robinson began investigating Furlong in February 2011 after the publication of his post-Olympic memoir, Patriot Hearts. She interviewed numerous people and studied documents from a variety of sources inside and outside Canada. Robinson's defence statement is expected to be filed on Tuesday. Her story, under the headline "John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake," alleged Furlong did not honestly recount his personal history of his move to Canada or the circumstances of the death of his cousin, Siobhan Roice, in a terrorist bombing in Dublin on May 17, 1974.

The Georgia Straight filing said Patriot Hearts did not reveal five key facts about Furlong, including his 1969 arrival in the Prince George diocese as a Frontier Apostle missionary, his physical education teaching at Immaculata elementary school in Burns Lake, the predominance of First Nations students at Immaculata, his marriage to fellow Frontier Apostle and Immaculata kindergarten teacher Margaret Cook and their 1970 move to Prince George College to be resident supervisors.

Robinson obtained signed statutory declarations by eight people who claimed they were victims of Furlong. Each of them is named in the text of the defence statement, along with allegations of the nature of the abuse they claim to have suffered. (On the day the story was published, the RCMP admitted it is investigating the allegations.)

Robinson also interviewed a cousin of Furlong's who said it was Roice's father Ned, not Furlong's father Jack, who identified the slain woman's body at a morgue in Dublin.

The statement said the defendants "were diligent in trying to verify the contents of the Georgia Straight article before publication, having regard to all relevant circumstances."

"The plaintiff refused to respond to specific questions concerning his life story and simply responded, through his lawyer Marvin Storrow, with a blanket denial of the allegations made in the eight statutory declarations."

The Georgia Straight denied committing libel and relies on the defences of fair comment and responsible communication in matters of public interest, such as the abuse at Catholic-run First Nations schools in the 1960s and 1970s, whether Furlong is qualified to provide "spiritual and moral guidance to other Canadians about the importance of values, honesty and integrity" and whether his life story "is a reliable and complete account."

The Georgia Straight is represented by Roger McConchie, who was hired by ex-Liberal MLA John van Dongen last year to be a friendly intervenor in the auditor general's lawsuit seeking the agreement that absolved guilty ex-Liberal aides Dave Basi and Bob Virk from $6 million of legal bills after an October 2010 plea bargain. The charges stemmed from the 2003 sale of BC Rail to CN.

Furlong followed through on his threatened his defamation lawsuit Nov. 27, 2012, in which he claimed to have "never engaged" in abuse, bullying or racial taunting of the students.

Furlong claimed that his personal history in Patriot Hearts -- including the circumstances of the death of his cousin Siobhan Roice, his father's death, the birth of his son and his immigration to Canada -- were true.

"The allegation in the Georgia Straight article that the plaintiff was not honestly recounting his personal history in Patriot Hearts is false and defamatory and was included in the article solely to further the objective of the defendant Robinson to discredit the plaintiff in the estimation of the public," said Furlong's court filing.

Furlong is represented by John Hunter and Claire Hunter of Hunter Litigation Chambers. John Hunter's resume includes representing the Vancouver College Foundation, Parents and Alumni Association in a 2002 B.C. Court of Appeal matter in which abuse victims from Mount Cashel, Nfld. were seeking compensation. Hunter's firm includes William Berardino, the special prosecutor in the case against Basi and Virk.

Despite the Georgia Straight story, Furlong appeared as scheduled in Grande Prairie, Alta., at the Alberta Sport Development Centre awards on Oct. 13 and at the Abbotsford B.C. economic symposium on Nov. 20. An Oct. 16 Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon, billed as "Behind the Bench: An Insider's Look at Whitecaps FC," was quietly cancelled on Oct. 2. Board of Trade spokesman Greg Hoekstra said that "John Furlong and the Whitecaps initiated the postponement."

Furlong was featured in the brochure for an April 11, 2013 luncheon speech at the North American YMCA Development Organization convention in Vancouver. The website, however, shows Rick Hansen appearing as the featured luncheon speaker instead.

Furlong remains executive chairman of the Vancouver Whitecaps, chairman of Own the Podium and Rocky Mountaineer rail tours and a director of Whistler Blackcomb and Canadian Tire.

His lawsuit also mentions Robinson's previously published work was critical of Furlong and VANOC, including the Olympic committee's relations with aboriginals, female ski jumpers who weren't allowed to compete at the 2010 Games, and athlete safety, after the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on the Games' opening day.

Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin frequently reports for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

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