Nearly three years after an article alleged former Vancouver Olympics CEO John Furlong abused his students when he was a gym teacher – casting a dark cloud over a man who had been much-lauded for his work leading the 2010 Games – a judge has handed him a significant victory, dismissing a defamation lawsuit against him.
B.C. Supreme Court on Friday ruled against freelance journalist Laura Robinson, who sued Mr. Furlong for his response to an article she wrote in the weekly newspaper Georgia Straight. The article accused Mr. Furlong of physically abusing students when he was an instructor at Immaculata Roman Catholic Elementary School in Burns Lake, B.C., in 1969-70. Ms. Robinson published a second article that same day in the Anishinabek News, in which she wrote one student had gone to the RCMP to say she had been sexually assaulted.
Justice Catherine Wedge, in a 97-page ruling, said Mr. Furlong's criticism of Ms. Robinson's work and suggestion she had a vendetta against him was covered by the defence of qualified privilege. The judge said she was satisfied Mr. Furlong was not motivated by malice and Ms. Robinson's work constituted an attack on Mr. Furlong's "character, conduct and credibility."
Friday's dismissal appears to bring an end to a chapter that has enveloped Mr. Furlong's life and crushed his once-lucrative public-speaking career. The lawsuit was the fourth filed against him – three former students earlier alleged sexual abuse, though two of the cases were dismissed and one was dropped. Mr. Furlong was not charged criminally and vehemently denied wrongdoing throughout.
In a written statement on Friday, Mr. Furlong said he was pleased with the judge's ruling. "In my heart, from the day this nightmare started, I knew truth would prevail. Now it has," wrote Mr. Furlong, who had initially filed a lawsuit against Ms. Robinson, then dropped it. He said he will look to the future "to continue my work in the Canadian sports system and rebuilding my career."
Ms. Robinson's lawsuit was to test whether Mr. Furlong's statements about her were defamatory, as opposed to testing the abuse allegations themselves. However, the judge heavily criticized Ms. Robinson's reporting.
Justice Wedge said Ms. Robinson should have taken "the greatest of care" to ensure the events described by former students were "completely spontaneous and not influenced in any way by the interviewer." Instead, the judge said, Ms. Robinson telegraphed both the target and subject of her story in a written announcement seeking people to interview.
"As none of the interviews was recorded, it is impossible to know the nature of the questioning which elicited the responses Ms. Robinson obtained," she wrote. The judge said Ms. Robinson's use of statutory declarations – eight former students swore them – was not sufficient. She said the case centred not on whether the individuals believed what they were saying, but whether the information was reliable.
The judge said only three of the sworn statements – those by the people who filed lawsuits – "were even minimally tested in a way that we, as a society, believe our system of justice requires when a citizen faces such serious and devastating allegations."
"All three proved to be unreliable," she said. The judge went on to take took issue with the tone of Ms. Robinson's e-mails to Mr. Furlong's representatives, and said Mr. Furlong was entitled to say Ms. Robinson was using the court process to get more allegations about him into the public realm. The judge also rejected Ms. Robinson's claim that the sex-abuse allegation was first reported by the CBC, saying she believed it originated in the piece that appeared in the Anishinabek News.
Ms. Robinson, in her written statement, thanked the court for its judgment, though she added she would have preferred a different result. Ms. Robinson said she would take time to review the judgment before commenting further or discussing her options.
The judge did not make a ruling on costs, saying the parties may speak to the issue. The judge also cautioned the case was not about a journalist's right to publish information that is in the public interest, or the defences available to a journalist who does so.