PORTLAND, Maine – A Maine activist who publicized sexual abuse accusations against a Haiti orphanage founder defamed the man and a U.S. charity, a federal jury ruled Thursday, awarding them more than $14 million combined in damages.
The jury ruled against Paul Kendrick even though seven accusers testified that they were sexually abused by orphanage founder Michael Geilenfeld in Haiti. Geilenfeld was awarded $7 million in damages, while Hearts with Haiti, a charity that provided funding for his orphanage, was award $7 million.
Geilenfeld said Kendrick made unsubstantiated accusations that were "vicious, vile lies." He blamed Kendrick's campaign for him being imprisoned for 237 days and for costing Hearts with Haiti several million dollars in donations.
Geilenfeld's lawyer, Peter DeTroy, said Kendrick was never out to get at the truth but instead wanted to destroy the man with unsubstantiated accusations.
"He has one goal: 'I'm going to destroy you. I'm going to bring you down. I'm going to put you in prison.' And he did," DeTroy told jurors Thursday in his closing arguments.
The trial in U.S. District Court painted two different pictures of Geilenfeld: One was the former Catholic brother who was inspired by his work with Mother Teresa to do good works. The other was of a man who sexually abused some of the street kids who came to him for help.
Geilenfeld testified that he'd been dogged in Haiti by false abuse accusations because he was a gay man in an island nation that he described as homophobic. He said all accusations were dispelled.
Kendrick, an activist for sexual abuse victims, launched a campaign in late 2011 in which he sent out email blasts to hundreds of people accusing Geilenfeld of being a serial pedophile and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Hearts with Haiti of refusing to do anything about him.
DeTroy likened the accusations to an indiscriminate Scud missile attack that rewrote the adage, "The pen is mightier than the sword."
"The computer keyboard is a lot mightier than the pen and the sword," he told jurors. Half-truths, exaggerations, distortions and outright falsehoods spread via electronic communication "can eviscerate one's reputation and one's life work," he said.
Geilenfeld was released from jail in Haiti in April after a judge cleared him of criminal charges during a one-day trial. Haiti's justice minister has said the verdict was improperly reached, and lawyers for the accusers are appealing the outcome.
The accusations surrounding Geilenfeld, 63, had existed for years before Kendrick learned of them and went on the offensive, said David Walker, Kendrick's lawyer.
Kendrick, 65, of Freeport, helped to form the state chapter of lay group Voice of the Faithful at the height of the clergy sex-abuse crisis that rocked the Roman Catholic Church.
"Mr. Geilenfeld is here to sue Mr. Kendrick for ruining his reputation. At the end of the day, Mr. Geilenfeld has a reputation that he deserves," he said.
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