FREEPORT, Maine — The local man who has been ordered to pay more than $14 million in damages in a federal defamation case Thursday says he doesn't regret his actions.
Paul Kendrick accused Haitian orphanage founder Michael Geilenfeld of sexually abusing boys in his care and sent hundreds of emails to third parties about the alleged abuse.
Some observers say they hope the outcome of the case will make people think twice before publicly speaking out against another person.
Kendrick began his email campaign against Geilenfeld back in 2011 after a Haitian journalist alerted him to the fact that Geilenfeld had been accused of sexual abuse multiple times over the course of 30 years.
Kendrick has been a vocal advocate for sexual abuse victims ever since the Catholic priest scandal in the late '90s. And this new case caught his attention.
"I am a barking dog about child sexual abuse," he says. "And every email I did — we did as advocates — was always with the hope of someone getting the message, some supporter would wake up for a moment and say, 'What is it I may not know?'"
Kendrick was accused of malicious attacks against Geilenfeld and against the charity Hearts with Haiti that supports the orphanage, which claimed that Kendrick's barrage of emails cost them $2 million in lost donations.
In closing arguments, Geilenfeld's lawyer pointed out that Kendrick sent conflicting email messages. In one case, Kendrick sent an email that accused Geilenfeld of rape, and 24 hours later sent an email to a colleague that said he didn't have enough information into the allegations against Geilenfeld.
Jurors were also reminded that Geilenfeld spent eight months in a Haitian jail as a result of allegations. He was cleared by a judge in April.
Kendrick says when it comes to sexual abuse, the message has to be loud because people often don't want to hear it.
"I wish it was different," he says. "I wish it could be done differently. It's not my experience."
But after nearly three weeks of testimony, the jury found that Kendrick negligently defamed both Michael Geilenfeld and Hearts with Haiti, with reckless disregard for the truth.
Kendrick has been ordered to pay $7 million to Michael Geilenfeld, and $7.5 million to Hearts with Haiti.
"It's a huge verdict, particularly for the state of Maine, and it will be interesting to see what happens going forward with this particular case," says Jennifer Wriggins, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law.
She says defamation cases are not common and can be difficult to prove, though this particular case offered a lot of electronic evidence such as emails.
She says some insurance policies cover court damages, but whether Kendrick's will cover $14.5 million remains to be seen.
"Oftentimes, a very large verdict gets a lot of publicity and then it's later reduced by a judge and that reduction gets a lot less publicity," Wriggins says. "So I think it's very hard to say what the impact of this case will be."
Kennebunk-based attorney Tara Rich says she hopes the case will make people more aware of the grave nature of claims made against others and the devastating effects they can have.
Rich is representing former Biddeford police officer Norman Gaudette, who has filed two defamation lawsuits amidst allegations of past sexual abuse — one against another former police officer and the other against a Biddeford-based newspaper.
"It's an issue that crops up now and again, especially when you have reporters who aren't being very careful about checking the facts, or publications that are loosely portraying or portraying only one side of the story and certainly where that has massive and drastic implications on someone's life," she says.
Jayne Hitchcock, the York-based founder of an organization dedicated to fighting online harassment called Working to Halt Online Abuse, says the verdict in the Kendrick case gives her hope that online harassment will be taken more seriously.
"I'm hoping it will send a message out to other people who feel they can remain anonymous online or they can just say whatever they want because of so-called freedom of speech and that they now realize they can and will be punished for it," she says.
Kendrick says he will abide by the jury's verdict. But he says the sexual abuse allegations against Michael Geilenfeld aren't over.
An appeal has been filed in the criminal case against Geilenfeld in Haiti. Kendrick says he will publish newsworthy statements and court documents about the upcoming trial as it proceeds.