VANCOUVER — John Furlong felt accused of letting Canada down when a newspaper published allegations that he abused First Nations children, the former Vancouver Olympics boss said in his first major speech in three years.
The man who steered the 2010 Winter Games was introduced by Vancouver Canucks president of hockey operations Trevor Linden and welcomed with standing ovations at a Vancouver Board of Trade event on Wednesday.
"I don't mind telling you I am pretty nervous," he said as he took the stage. "For a long time I thought I would never have the chance to do this again."
Furlong said his world came "crashing down" in September 2012 when an article ran in the Georgia Straight newspaper that included allegations that he beat and taunted students at a northern B.C. school more than 40 years ago.
"I know I had thousands of friends, definitely hundreds of friends, here and around the world, and it just seemed like almost immediately most of them went away," he said.
"I think most people just didn't know what to think or say ... It was a very lonely and difficult time."
Journalist Laura Robinson obtained eight sworn affidavits from people who said Furlong physically abused them while a gym teacher in Burns Lake, B.C., in 1969 and 1970, a chapter of his life that had been omitted from his memoir "Patriot Hearts."
Robinson filed a defamation suit over public comments Furlong made after the article's publication, and last month a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled he had a right to defend himself from her "attacks" on his character and credibility.
While the judge found numerous errors in Robinson's reporting, the allegations in her article have not been tested in court because Furlong dropped his own defamation suit this year.
Furlong told a packed room of about 500 business leaders that as an Irish immigrant, he always wanted to prove he was worthy of being Canadian.
"So when the sky fell for me and for our family, I felt in a way I was being accused of letting the country down," he said.
Speaking in front of his daughter and brother, he said the allegations took a grave toll on his family. After he and his wife Deborah retreated to Ireland, she was killed in a car crash.
But he always remembered advice from his father: "When people are saying horrible, horrible things about you, and you can see no hope ... The only thing that's standing between you and survival is the answer to one simple question: 'What is true'?"
In a brief interview after the speech, Furlong said despite dropping his own suit, the scathing judgment in Robinson's case said "loud and clear" he was "completely exonerated."
"Observers of what took place in court are of the view that if that's what the judge was willing to write, you can only imagine what she was thinking."
He reiterated his firm denial of ever being too rough with his students. Asked whether he thought Robinson's sources were lying, he replied, "I'm not going to answer that question."
Furlong said he would have included his time in Burns Lake in "Patriot Hearts" had he known what would be written about him later.
"It's a massive chasm from not putting it in the book to having to deal with what was said."
After the years-long ordeal, Furlong said he's ready to move on and does not plan to go after Robinson for costs.
"This was more about ... getting to the truth, and people will decide what they think about what she did."
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Laura Kane, The Canadian Press