PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A Maine activist who led an email blitz accusing a Haiti orphanage founder of sexually abusing boys was ordered Thursday to pay more than $14 million in damages to the man and to a charity that raised money for the orphanage.
The jury awarded $7 million in damages to Michael Geilenfeld, founder of St. Joseph's Home for Boys, and $7.5 million to North Carolina-based Hearts with Haiti, even though seven Haitian men testified that they were molested by Geilenfeld.
Geilenfeld, who testified that the accusations of abuse were "vicious, vile lies," blamed Paul Kendrick's campaign for him being imprisoned for 237 days in a jail in Haiti and for costing Hearts with Haiti several million dollars in donations.
Peter DeTroy, lawyer for Geilenfeld and the charity, said the jury's verdict sends a message that people need to think twice before making online attacks.
"The computer keyboard is a lot mightier than the pen and the sword," he told jurors. But, he said, half-truths, exaggerations, distortions and outright falsehoods spread via electronic communication "can eviscerate one's reputation and one's life work."
David Walker, Kendrick's lawyer, said he was disappointed by the verdict and that he'd be looking at the option of an appeal. He declined further comment.
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's Missionary of Charity Brothers to do good works in Haiti. 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 accusations because he was a gay man in an island nation that he described as homophobic. He said all accusations were dispelled by previous investigations but that the same claims kept resurfacing.
Kendrick, an activist for sexual abuse victims, launched his campaign in late 2011 in which he sent out email blasts to hundreds of people accusing Geilenfeld of being a serial pedophile and Hearts with Haiti of refusing to do anything about him.
"He had 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.
After the jury's verdict, the plaintiffs told the judge that they were satisfied with the verdict and would not seek punitive damages. At least a portion of the damages would be paid by Kendrick's homeowner's insurance policy, attorneys said.
Geilenfeld, an Iowa native, left the courtroom without commenting to reporters.
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.
Kendrick, who was not present for the verdict, said in an email that he was disappointed that the jurors rejected the testimony of Geilenfeld's accusers. Two testified in the federal courtroom in Portland and five testified via video recording about being abused by Geilenfeld.
Several of them said that Geilenfeld told them they'd have to make a "sacrifice." One of them said he was warned when he arrived at St. Joseph's about Geilenfeld.
Geilenfeld was arrested last fall and released from jail 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 the 63-year-old Geilenfeld had existed for years before Kendrick learned of them and decided to alert the public, Walker told jurors.
"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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