PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A $14.5 million defamation verdict against a Maine man who accused the founder of an orphanage in Haiti of being a serial pedophile hinges on where the plaintiff was living when the lawsuit was filed.
Orphanage founder Michael Geilenfeld acknowledged Wednesday in federal court in Maine that he was in Haiti when he brought the lawsuit. But he said he considered Iowa to be his “home base” in the decades that he ran the orphanage and he testified that he always planned to return to his home state.
“I was called to Haiti,” Geilenfeld said. “I was born in Iowa and have never let go of my Iowa identity.”
But lawyers for Paul Kendrick, who had relentlessly leveled sexual abuse allegations against Geilenfeld, questioned whether the case belonged in federal court at all since Geilenfeld was living outside the U.S. at the time.
Geilenfeld, who’s now living in the United States, was charged in Haiti and imprisoned for eight months before the charges were dismissed. Still, he again is under criminal investigation after a justice minister granted a re-examination of the case.
A federal jury in July awarded $7 million to Geilenfeld, founder of St. Joseph Home for Boys in Haiti, and $7.5 million to a North Carolina-based charity, Hearts with Haiti, which helped fund the orphanage. And the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has asked Judge John A. Woodcock Jr., who heard the arguments Wednesday, to determine the residency issue.
The legal implications of the defamation verdict were so serious that the judge encouraged the parties earlier this month to negotiate a settlement, telling them that “the ground under that verdict has been shaken.”
Geilenfeld would not qualify to sue if he was living in Haiti with no specific timeframe for returning to the U.S., but the fact that he maintained ties to Iowa and planned to return will have to be weighed by the judge, said Linda Simard, a law professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
She said the judge will have to figure out Geilenfeld’s “subjective intent” by looking at the facts and testimony.