The competing portraits of Michael Geilenfeld that his friends and enemies have painted for years could scarcely be more different.
The missionary’s Haitian orphanages have been funded by millions of dollars channeled through a Raleigh nonprofit, and also supported by several Triangle churches and hundreds of volunteers and donors here. He is either a saint who rescues street kids and child slaves or a sexual monster who pens them up to prey on them, depending which side you’re on.
The truth remains murky, despite Geilenfeld’s arrest this month in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. More than two weeks later, he still has not been formally charged, and his supporters argue that he is being illegally detained because allies of a man Geilenfeld is suing in the United States persuaded a prosecutor to use an invalid arrest warrant.
Geilenfeld, a former member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Brothers, started St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in 1985, eventually adding two more homes for kids, including one for disabled children, a school and a guest house frequented by missionaries.
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His organization, St. Joseph Family, has a dance group called Resurrection Dance Theater of Haiti that tours the United States once or twice a year, often performing at churches, to help build the charity’s donor base.
North Carolina is known for sending outsized numbers of charitable donations and aid volunteers to Haiti, as Geilenfeld noted during an interview with The News & Observer in 2008 in Port-au-Prince. He said that his group’s financial heart was in the Triangle, where a host of churches have sent contributions and volunteers and where the nonprofit Hearts with Haiti acts as his U.S. financial wing, collecting donations.
According to court documents in Maine, Hearts with Haiti has raised nearly $5 million for his projects in Haiti.
“North Carolina is our hub,” Geilenfeld said at the time. “The majority of our support comes from there, and it’s not just us. Something is going on that’s pulling all these people here from North Carolina.”
His supporters, which include members of several Triangle churches, maintain Geilenfeld’s innocence. They say his arrest is part of a caustic, yearslong Internet campaign by an activist in Maine who campaigns against sexual abuse and who, without any proof of Geilenfeld’s guilt, has been trying to destroy him and his ability to raise money for his charity.
Even after years of allegations, the arrest was a shock, said several local people who have volunteered at Geilenfeld’s orphanages and known him for years.
“I got to know the boys, and they live in a healthy, strong environment with very strong Christian foundation, and I believe in the mission,” said Kay Leaman of Chapel Hill, who visits Haiti several times a year to work with Geilenfeld’s orphanages and has known him since 1999. “People in Raleigh and Chapel Hill who know him are appalled that this has happened, particularly because of the conditions he’s living in, and we truly believe that he is innocent.”
Geilenfeld’s attorney in Haiti, Alain Lemithe, is seeking his release. But hearings Wednesday and Friday were delayed, according to The Associated Press.
Claims spark lawsuit
The Rev. Lori Pistor, interim minister at West Raleigh Presbyterian Church, where Hearts with Haiti operates out of donated office space, was a founding member of the charity’s board, though she no longer works with the group. At a Sunday service after Geilenfeld’s arrest, Pistor held up a newspaper article about it, and told the congregation to feel free to ask church leaders questions about the case. She later wrote the congregation an open letter saying the accusations were unfounded, and that Hearts with Haiti tried to resolve the issues for years before deciding that it needed to file a lawsuit.
Geilenfeld and Hearts with Haiti are suing activist Paul Kendrick for defamation. The bitter case has been lurching through a federal court in Portland, Maine, for more than a year and a half, and is just weeks away from going to trial unless Geilenfeld’s arrest disrupts that.
Pistor said Hearts with Haiti had thoroughly investigated the allegations against Geilenfeld, found nothing incriminating, and only then decided to sue.
Kendrick and Cyrus Sibert – a Haitian journalist working for Kendrick – said in interviews that they have victims willing to testify in court in Haiti and the United States.
Such allegations have arisen repeatedly since 1987. Geilenfeld’s attackers say there are too many accusations for them not to be true. His supporters, meanwhile, say many of the reports were repeated by the same handful of cunning former street boys who snookered gullible Americans, and have proven to be not credible again and again.
Court documents, old newspaper reports and Geilenfeld’s supporters paint a picture of what was at first a simple scheme by former street kids to avoid returning to one of the poorest and most chaotic places on Earth. Later, Geilenfeld supporters say, Kendrick and his allies lent more fuel to the allegations by telling former orphanage residents that the accusations could bring a big court settlement.
In 1995, Detroit authorities briefly placed six boys from Geilenfeld’s dance troupe in protective custody during a 10-city tour after some of them told authorities they had been abused.
After a juvenile court investigated the claims and released the boys to him, Geilenfeld said there was nothing to the allegations.
“They are children from the streets,” he said. “They have honed their manipulative skills, and they know how to get certain reactions.”
Geilenfeld has flatly denied sexually or physically abusing children several other times, including in an affidavit filed with the Maine court, and by email to Kendrick.
A promise of witnesses
Geilenfeld’s supporters say that these early false allegations triggered Kendrick’s campaign to destroy the missionary and Hearts with Haiti. They came to his attention after a longtime Haiti relief worker in Raleigh, Bonnie Elam, sent the information to Sibert, who then gave it to Kendrick, according to court documents.
Kendrick, a financial adviser who lives in Freeport, Maine, has never visited the orphanage or met Geilenfeld. He began sending hundreds of caustic emails to board members, church leaders, volunteers and other supporters, some flatly stating Geilenfeld was a child molester, according to court documents. Sometimes, just days before or after sending such messages, Kendrick would write Sibert or Elam to say they needed solid proof.
Kendrick said that if the trial is held in October as planned, his defense will produce seven former residents of the orphanage as witnesses, and all of them will describe sexual abuse. Two of them will testify in person, he said, the rest by video from Haiti and Great Britain.
Valerie Dirksen, an Atlanta-area real estate agent, said last week in an interview that while helping the dance troupe with performances in 2011, one of the young men in the troupe confided in her about his abuse. She eventually took him and a second young man into her home.
Both, she said, told similar stories about being abused by Geilenfeld, as did other former residents of the orphanage who called to thank her for helping the two. She was deposed in the lawsuit; she said she made the same allegations in her testimony, but the deposition was sealed.
“They don’t want money,” she said. “They all just want Michael to be arrested and in jail, and for this to stop.”
Sibert, the journalist, said he has interviewed more than a dozen people who say that Geilenfeld abused them.
Kendrick said that Geilenfeld’s arrest should give pause to the Maine jury and anyone who has sided with the missionary.
“We’re glad to see that the Haitian government and law enforcement is listening, finally, to the voices of child abuse victims who have been trying to be heard for 20 years,” he said.
Trouble for fundraising
Gielenfeld’s supporters, meanwhile, say that his arrest last week and a SWAT-like raid on the orphanage in February were orchestrated by Kendrick at junctures when the defamation case in Maine was going badly for him.
Just days before the arrest, Chief District Court Judge John A. Woodcock of Portland, Maine, issued a 54-page opinion rejecting Kendrick’s motion to dismiss the case, sending the matter to a jury trial set now for Oct. 7. Woodcock wrote that he was not taking sides, but he was repeatedly critical of Kendrick’s case in the order.
“At this stage, the Court is required to view the much-disputed record in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs ,” he wrote.
Each side has alleged bribery and improper influence in Haiti by the other, but Kendrick scoffed at the notion that he caused the arrest.
“It’s insane to think that Paul Kendrick, a local businessman in Portland, Maine, can transport the entire government of Haiti to arrest this man,” he said.
Until now, Sibert said, Geilenfeld’s influence had been enough to prevent his arrest.
“Understand in a poor country like Haiti, someone who runs an NGO can be a very powerful person,” he said. “They may have many thousands of dollars and have connections, and when we try to get investigation, we may find they have blocked it.”
Kendrick said he didn’t mind being sued for his tactics against Geilenfeld.
“Why doesn’t this group, all those lawyers and boards, say, ‘Let’s just be quiet for a few days and wait to hear what these men have to say’?” he said. “Finally, these poor, victimized men who live in Haiti will have the opportunity to testify in the safety of an American courtroom, and nothing else matters to me.”
Various investigations over the years – from the one in Detroit to another by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2012 – have found no cause to prosecute Geilenfeld. But even if he is set free by the Haitian authorities, it may be impossible to fully cleanse his reputation in court of the Internet, where milder allegations than those he faces could harm the vigorous fundraising it takes to keep his charity running.
“It’s not ever going to be the same, and there’s just no question about that,” Pistor said. “I think that over the years, the boys, the homes, Michael, they have developed a strong base, and that will get reinvigorated. It’s hard enough for nonprofits in the current economic climate, it’s an awful time now, but I’m hopeful that on the other side it’s going to be different.”