By Tracey Kaplan
SAN JOSE, Calif. — In a triumph for victims of clergy sex abuse, a jury Thursday acquitted a San Francisco man of felony assault and elder abuse for beating up the cleric he says brutally raped him as a child decades ago.
The jury also found Will Lynch not guilty of misdemeanor elder abuse in the attack he admitted committing on the Rev. Jerold Lindner two years ago at a Jesuit retirement center in Los Gatos, Calif. But it deadlocked 8-4 in favor of a misdemeanor assault conviction, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial on that count in a case that drew national attention.
The verdict thrilled Lynch’s many supporters, who faithfully packed the Santa Clara County courtroom during the three-week trial and picketed outside bearing signs that read, “Jail Father Jerry” “Sacred Heart Jesuit Center: Pedophile Playground” and “Help Free Willy.”
Even though the Jesuits have doled out millions of dollars to settle cases brought by Lindner’s alleged victims, the priest was never prosecuted because Lynch and others reported the abuse after the brief window of opportunity set by the statute of limitations at the time slammed shut.
Lynch chose to go to trial and risk four years in prison rather than negotiating a plea deal for no more than one year in county jail because he wanted to strike back at Lindner and the Catholic church — a strategy that paid off.
Not only was Lynch acquitted of the felonies and one of the two lesser-included misdemeanors, but he also achieved his two other goals — drawing national attention to the anguish of clergy sex abuse survivors and pillorying Lindner, whom the Jesuits list as a child molester.
Tears streaming down her face, Lynch’s mother, Peggy, mouthed “thank you” to the three women and nine men on the jury. Lynch, who had expected to be convicted of at least a misdemeanor, embraced his attorneys.
“My heart leaped,” said Will Lynch’s younger sister, Amanda Lynch, of her reaction when the clerk read the jury’s decision.
But the verdict was a blow to prosecutors, who argued that although they believed that Lindner molested Lynch and his 4-year-old brother in the mid-1970s on a camping trip in the Santa Cruz Mountains, his repugnant act didn’t justify Lynch’s “vigilante” attack. The May 10, 2010, beating left the priest bruised and bloodied, with two cuts to his face and ear.
In contrast, Lynch’s attorneys essentially told the jury that the wrong man was on trial.
“The DA says no man is above the law, but there is one man who has been above the law, who sits in a vineyard, with medical care and cars,” defense lawyer Pat Harris had said, referring to Lindner.
District Attorney Jeff Rosen left open the possibility he may retry Lynch on the misdemeanor assault charge, though some legal experts said it was unlikely.
“I’m disappointed,” said Rosen outside the courthouse.
Asked if the trial was a waste of resources, Rosen responded, “You can’t put a price on justice.”
Outside the courthouse, Lynch was jubilant. He plans to start a non-profit organization to help other victims and lobby for the elimination of the statute of limitations for child molestation.
“I was wrong for doing what I did — in doing that I perpetuated the cycle of violence,” Lynch said outside the courtroom. “But if there is anything I want people (who have been molested) to take away from this — it is you can come forward, you can seek justice and you can find justice in many forms.”
During the eight-day trial, the prosecution twice showed the jury a videotape of an exclusive interview Lynch gave to the San Jose Mercury News, in which he gave a heartbreaking account of the alleged molestation and his emotional scars. Lynch also testified about being sexually assaulted and admitted hitting Lindner at least twice.
One juror called the rape of Lynch and his brother “heinous, absolutely heinous.”
Despite the judge’s admonitions, “It was a tough thing to disregard,” said the juror, a retired Silicon Valley accountant. “It played a big role in our decision.”
The juror was one of the seven who voted to convict Lynch for misdemeanor assault. Lindner testified last month about what he called a “vicious” and painful attack, but the juror said it wasn’t a factor in the vote. Judge David A. Cena had instructed the jury to ignore Lindner’s testimony, including his denial of the alleged molestation, after the Jesuit refused to answer any more questions on the grounds it might incriminate him.
The juror said after the priest’s testimony was thrown out and the testimony of the prosecution’s two eyewitnesses was disputed, “we all thought it would be not guilty. But then the defendant said he did it.”
The verdict capped off a tumultuous assault trial roiled by disruptions, from accusations of prosecutorial misconduct to an angry confrontation in the hallway between the priest and his niece, who claims he also sexually molested her.
Lynch was charged with two felonies that together carried a maximum sentence of four years — assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury and elder abuse under circumstances likely to produce great bodily harm or death.
The jury also had the option of finding Lynch guilty of the lesser-included crimes of simple assault and a less serious form of elder abuse — both of which are misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail.
In 1998, the Jesuits paid Lynch and his brother about $187,000 each after legal fees to settle a lawsuit they filed claiming Lindner had raped Lynch and made him have oral sex with his 4-year-old brother. The order also paid another camper more than $1.5 million to settle her lawsuit. In 2007, one of Lindner’s nieces sued the Jesuits for Lindner’s alleged sexual abuse of her as a child and settled for $786,000.
But the molestation and lack of prosecution continued to eat away at Lynch. He testified he confronted Lindner in hopes he would sign a confession to sexually molesting him and his brother on the camping trip organized by a religious group.
He said he began pummeling Lindner after the priest refused to sign a confession and “leered” at him the same way he did during the alleged molestation decades ago.
In her closing argument, prosecutor Vicki Gemetti acknowledged the sympathy Lynch evoked, but she told jurors, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Pat Harris, Lynch’s lead attorney, said the prosecution had a choice, but decided to “overcharge the case” by filing felonies stemming from an incident in which “the damage was less than a 10-second bar fight.”
In a statement released after the verdict, the main victims group in the United States, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, thanked the jury.
“Violence is wrong. Still, we are grateful for this verdict. The odds that Lynch would ever re-offend are infinitely small. We hope this case prods lawmakers to reform predator friendly laws that prevent child sex abuse victims from exposing predators in civil and criminal court.”
In a sign earlier this week that at least some members of the jury were leaning toward acquittal, the panel took the highly unusual step of asking the judge for the definition of nullification.
Nullification is when a jury acquits a defendant despite evidence of guilt because it believes a conviction would be unjust.
The question initially stunned the judge and lawyers, who argued over how to respond. Over the vehement objections of Lynch’s lawyers, the judge ended up telling the jury Thursday they had to obey his instructions to follow the law, and deliberations continued. At that point, the defense braced for a conviction, said Paul A. Mones, one of Lynch’s attorneys.
©2012 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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