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American founder of orphanage in Haiti is charged with having sex with minors

A U.S. man who founded an orphanage in Haiti was charged Monday with traveling from Miami to the Caribbean country to have sex with underage children after spending over a decade dodging accusations that he abused minors in his care.

Michael Karl Geilenfeld, 71, who was arrested Saturday in Denver, had even won a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit in a Maine federal court against an advocate who accused him of sexually abusing boys at his orphanage in Haiti. Geilenfeld had also been arrested in Haiti on the very same allegations that landed him in a Port-au-Prince jail amid the defamation battle —only to have the case dismissed by a judge when some of his alleged victims were a no-show in court.

Geilenfeld is expected to have a detention hearing in federal court in Denver on Thursday, and will later be flown to Miami. A federal grand jury has indicted him on a charge of traveling to Haiti from Miami International Airport “for the purpose of engaging in any illicit sexual conduct with another person under 18.” Geilenfeld is accused of traveling to the country between November 2006 and December 2010, when he was operating the St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince. He founded the orphanage in 1985.

The alleged sex-tourism offense, investigated by Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI, carries a possible sentence of up to 30 years in prison.

Paul Kendrick, a Maine resident who had accused Geilenfeld of being a serial pedophile and led a campaign demanding justice for his Haitian victims, told the Miami Herald Monday that he was on the verge of tears. Kendrick was twice sued by Geilenfeld for defamation.

“I am very grateful that the U.S. government pursued the investigation of this guy and that the grand jury heard the evidence, heard the testimony and has indicted him,” Kendrick, 74, said. “I, on a daily basis, think about the terrible, terrible harm done to these poor, mostly street kids in Haiti by Geilenfeld. Just terrible abuse, the terrible guilt and shame they live with on a daily basis. Their own struggles to find safe shelter and food.”

Active in his local Catholic diocese, Kendrick, a graduate of Fairfield University, a private Jesuit school in Connecticut, first visited Haiti in 2003 where he joined a medical group on a visit to Cap-Haïtien, the country’s second largest city. There, he met Douglas Perlitz, a Colorado native and fellow graduate of Fairfield. Years later, Perlitz was convicted in a New Haven, Conn., federal court of sexually abusing Haitian minors at his Project Pierre Toussaint School for homeless children, which he founded for street children.

Perlitz’s conviction led to a missionary contacting a. local Haitian journalist, Cyrus Seibert, about Geilenfeld and allegations that he too was engaged in similar behavior. After Seibert broke the story, Kendrick got in touch with him after also being contacted about the Iowa native. Together, the two led a years-long email and and blog campaign on SurvivorsVoices demanding Geilenfeld’s arrest and justice for the survivors of his abuse.

“We started making noise, asking questions, wanting to be assured kids were safe there; just leaned on it, leaned on it hard to the point the nonprofit, Hearts with Haiti, and Geilenfeld were co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit saying, ‘It never happened; he’s never abused a child, never ever,’ ” Kendrick said. “They stood by this guy and called anyone names who dared to believe the victims, the dozens of young people coming forward, a terrible thing.”

The Herald reached out to Hearts with Haiti, a North Carolina nonprofit that raised money for Geilenfeld’s orphanage, but had not received a reply by publication.

“This arrest sends a strong signal to all child abusers that despite their schemes to discourage victims, witnesses and children’s rights activists, as Martin Luther King said, ‘the curve of history tends towards justice,’ ” Seibert said.

Kendrick’s accusations against Geilenfeld began in 2011, but it was three years before Haitian police arrested him in 2014 in Port-au-Prince. After Geilenfeld spent a year in jail on suspicion of charges of indecent assault and criminal conspiracy, his case was dismissed by a judge after five of his alleged victims didn’t appear at a key hearing. The victims filed an appeal. Though it was granted, the case has yet to be retried.

At the time of his Haiti arrest, Geilenfeld had an ongoing defamation lawsuit in federal court in Maine against Kendrick. Geilenfeld and Hearts with Haiti accused Kendrick of costing the orphanage over $1.5 million in donations.

A federal jury sided with Geilenfeld. He was awarded $7 million and the North Carolina-based charity was awarded $7.5 million. “I had U.S. marshals putting liens on my property,” Kendrick recalled. “It was just a hard time. But do I regret any of it on behalf of these poor kids? No, no, no. This guy is a monster.”

It was eventually decided on appeal that Geilenfeld wasn’t living in the U.S. when he filed the complaint, and therefore lacked jurisdiction to sue in federal court. After the verdict was thrown out, Geilenfeld refiled in Maine state court. Kendrick’s insurance company in the fall of 2019 settled the six-year-old defamation case, and agreed to pay Hearts with Haiti $3 million but nothing to Geilenfeld.

Kendrick believes the reason for the revived interest in Geilenfeld, whose whereabouts became unknown after the Haitian government shut down his orphanage, is due to some of the victims coming forward during his legal dispute. Some of them, he said, were young, and that caught the attention of Homeland Security investigators, who traveled to the Dominican Republic to interview alleged victims.

At one point Geilenfeld was living in the neighboring country where he was arrested in 2019 and then ordered deported to Haiti after Haitian authorities re-issued a warrant on child sexual-abuse allegations and demanded he appear before a judge. Instead of being sent to Haiti, he was allowed to reenter the United States on a flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, with the help of the U.S. State Department and the embassy in Santo Domingo, Kendrick said at the time.

U.S. authorities now believe that there are potentially many more victims of Geilenfeld’s during the 30 years he spent in Haiti, and they are asking them to step forward. Cases of child sex trafficking and sex tourism incidents are not unheard of in the troubled country where in 2021 it was estimated that there were about 30,000 children living in 750 residential care centers like orphanages.

READ MORE: Pope Francis pleads for Haitian nuns’ release, as gang violence and kidnappings spike

Although the country’s child-welfare office has led efforts to combat sex tourism by requiring hotels, restaurants and bars to report any suspected incidents, the State Department said in its recent Trafficking in Persons Report that the Haitian government did not make efforts to reduce demand for sex acts.

Most of Haiti’s trafficking cases involve children in forced labor and sex trafficking in domestic service, commonly called restavek situations, the State Department said. In 2022, a nongovernmental organization estimated that two-thirds of the children in forced labor situations are girls, mostly victims of sex trafficking.

International child sex tourism in Haiti usually involves tourists being from the United States, Canada and Europe, the State Department said. Emerging practices include “bride-buying,” in which men pay between $100 to $200 to the families of girls as young as 14. Traffickers also target children in orphanages, most of which operate without a license or proper Haitian government oversight.

One of the more high profile sex tourism cases involved Perlitz, who was accused of having spent a decade abusing children attending his northern Haiti school. One of the more recent cases to be prosecuted by U.S. authorities involved a former resident of Bradenton, Florida, who ran an orphanage in southeastern Haiti.

In 2018, Daniel John Pye was sentenced to 40 years in prison after he was convicted on child-sex tourism charges. A 12-member jury found him guilty of traveling to Haiti on at least three separate dates for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with minor girls in his care at an orphanage in Jacmel and a nearby beach between 2006 and 2012.

At trial, Pye was depicted by prosecutors as a missionary with a dark side who traveled from Miami to Haiti to sexually abuse underage girls. One girl, according to a government witness, was 12 years-old.

The same year of Pye’s arrest, another sex scandal involving foreigners in Haiti made headlines. Workers with the British charity Oxfam were accused of hiring prostitutes in the aftermath of the country’s 2010 earthquake. In response to the revelations, the Haitian government at the time removed the charity’s right to operate.

Both the issue of sex workers and protecting children from exploitation is a thorny issue in Haiti, where deepening poverty has made people vulnerable, and children often lack protection. Many children in orphanages, for example, are not truly orphans but are placed in such homes because their families cannot afford to care for them. It’s estimated that 80 percent of children in orphanages have at least one living parent.

Kendrick, who also had advocated on behalf of Perlitz’s victims, said he is anxious to get Geilenfeld “before a jury and have those young people testify to what he did to them.” He hopes that the victims, who he said have had to live with the shame and the abuse, will receive financial reparations similar to Perlitz’s victims.

“The people from the U.S. nonprofit organizations who supported Geilenfeld all of these years and others in Haiti who stayed silent, looked the other way, knew what was going on and did nothing, should be ashamed of themselves for bringing such harm to these children and young people,” Kendrick said. “Let’s get him in jail.”

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