Jury: Freeport activist owes $14.5M in sex abuse defamation case

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PORTLAND — A jury decided Thursday that a Freeport advocate for children sexually abused by clergy was reckless and negligent in publicly accusing a Haiti orphanage founder of molesting children in his care.

The jury awarded Michael Geilenfeld and an affiliated nonprofit, Hearts with Haiti, $14.5 million in damages for harm to his and the organization’s reputation and for direct fundraising losses the jury found were attributable to scandal prompted by Paul Kendrick’s allegations from 2011 through this year.

The jury’s decision included $2.5 million in damages on claims that Kendrick was negligent and reckless in his statements about Hearts with Haiti. The jury awarded Geilenfeld $7 million on similar claims.

Another $5 million was awarded to Hearts with Haiti based on interference with its business, or fundraising losses.

The case was yet another forum where allegations against Geilenfeld – who was imprisoned for 237 days in Haiti during an investigation of those claims – were put on trial. Alleged victims have appealed Geilenfeld’s acquittal on sex abuse claims in Haiti.

Geilenfeld declined to comment as he left the courtroom Thursday after hugging supporters at the conclusion of a three-week defamation trial that included testimony from seven men who said they were sexually abused by Geilenfeld sometime during the 1990s.

Kendrick, who was banned from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for his protests and activism about the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse cases, was not present for the jury’s reading of the verdict Thursday.

“Naturally, we’re disappointed with the result and we’ll be looking into our options for appeal,” David Walker, Kendrick’s attorney, said.

Peter DeTroy, attorney for Geilenfeld and Hearts with Haiti, said he expects some portion of the damages awarded to be covered by Kendrick’s homeowners insurance policy, though neither he nor Walker could speculate how much that policy may cover.

To reach a verdict, the 10-person jury was required to reach a unanimous vote, which they did after more than five hours of deliberation on the claims brought against Kendrick by Geilenfeld and Hearts of Haiti.

To win, both plaintiffs had to prove it was more likely than not that Kendrick made one or more false claims, that the statements were published to a third party, that the statements were made negligently or with reckless disregard for whether the statements were false, and that the statements did financial damage or damaged the reputations of either Hearts with Haiti or Geilenfeld.

At issue was a public awareness campaign launched by Kendrick, 65, against 63-year-old Geilenfeld and the North Carolina-based nonprofit for which he worked in 2011.

Kendrick alleged in multiple emails and online publications that Geilenfeld sexually abused boys he had taken in at an orphanage in Port Au Prince, Haiti, and that the nonprofit had turned a blind eye.

Geilenfeld and the nonprofit orphanage sued Kendrick in 2013 for defamation and were seeking compensation for damage to their reputations and an estimated loss of more than $2 million in donations.

Attorneys for both sides delivered closing arguments Thursday morning.

DeTroy delivered a closing argument that lasted for 90 minutes. He said the “scourge” of child sexual abuse loomed large over the case, but he urged caution to the jury in weighing testimony of the seven men who said they were abused by Geilenfeld as children or teenagers while staying at the orphanage.

“When we hear these allegations, it’s hard not to credit them,” DeTroy said. “Our instinct is to protect.”

DeTroy argued that investigations by Haitian officials, U.S. officials and an internal investigation by the nonprofit have not verified the sexual abuse claims against Geilenfeld and called Kendrick’s statements against his clients “cyber vigilantism.”

He showed the jury a series of emails Kendrick wrote in early 2011 which he said showed Kendrick saw a need for more evidence against Geilenfeld at a time when he was publishing statements of Geilenfeld’s guilt and Hearts with Haiti’s complicity.

DeTroy also argued that if jurors believed the testimony of the victims in the trial, they should consider that the victims said they were sexually abused by Geilenfeld in the 1990s and that there was no evidence to support Kendrick’s claims of ongoing sexual abuse at the time of the allegations in 2011.

Walker, Kendrick’s attorney, argued against a narrative that Kendrick was a lone crusader against Geilenfeld and Hearts with Haiti, citing emails from members of the organization’s board of directors showing internal conflicts and debates about the veracity of the claims against Geilenfeld.

The more than two hours of closing arguments came after several hours of testimony and presentation of evidence over three weeks.

Sidebar Elements

Paul Kendrick, an outspoken advocate for victims of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, stands outside the Falmouth home of former Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland Bishop Richard Malone in this 2012 file photo.