A federal appeals court has ruled against a Raleigh-based charity and the founder of an orphanage in Haiti who together had won a defamation lawsuit in New England, only to see that ruling reversed on appeal.
Hearts with Haiti and Michael Geilenfeld won a $14.5 million verdict in 2015 against Paul Kendrick of Maine. Kendrick began an internet campaign in 2011 accusing Geilenfeld of sexually abusing children in his care at facilities operated by his organization, St. Joseph Family. Hearts with Haiti acts as the U.S. financial wing of St. Joseph Family, collecting donations on behalf of the organization.
But last summer, a federal judge ruled that Geilenfeld lacked grounds to sue in the United States because he wasn’t living in the country when he filed the lawsuit. A federal appeals court in Boston upheld that decision last week, reaffirming the dismissal of the defamation lawsuit and the order that Kendrick pay damages.
Alan Stone, the president of the Hearts with Haiti board of directors, called the court’s decision disappointing, but says it doesn’t change the jury’s decision that Kendrick defamed the charity and Geilenfeld.
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“We were completely vindicated,” Stone said Monday. “The fact that the verdict was overturned on a technicality does not change the finding that the jury made.”
Individuals and churches from the Triangle have been big supporters of St. Joseph Family over the years, both financially and as volunteers. Stone says Kendrick has repeatedly targeted Hearts with Haiti donors with the message that Geilenfeld is a child molester and that Hearts with Haiti supports a child molester. Their lawyers claimed in federal court that the campaign had cost Hearts with Haiti several million dollars in donations.
At the defamation trial in Maine in 2015, Geilenfeld testified that he believed the accusations of sexual abuse lingered against him in Haiti because he was a gay man in what he described as a homophobic country.
On its website, Hearts with Haiti posted a “legal update” in February that affirmed its support for Geilenfeld as “a good and faithful person.” St. Joseph Family operates a home for 32 children and young adults with disabilities and a day school for 150 children, but St. Joseph’s Home for Boys that Geilenfeld opened in 1985 has been closed, pending a new license.
Stone said Geilenfeld has not been back to Haiti in more than a year and is not involved in the day-to-day operation of St. Joseph Family. He said Hearts with Haiti and Geilenfeld have filed an identical defamation suit against Kendrick in state court in Maine and may decide to pursue that instead of appealing the federal case again.
“My understanding is that the probability is that the whole case would be heard again, using a lot of the same evidence,” he said.
Kendrick continues to claim the abuse allegations against Geilenfeld are true, according to The Associated Press, and that more victims have come forward to testify if the state court case moves forward.