- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Opening statements were scheduled to begin Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of beating an aging Jesuit priest who he says molested him and his younger brother more than 35 years ago.

William Lynch has said the priest abused him and his brother during a camping trip in Northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Now 44, Mr. Lynch will get his longtime wish to face the Rev. Jerold Lindner in court for the first time.

Mr. Lynch faces felony charges of assault and elder abuse after prosecutors say he beat Father Lindner in 2010 in front of startled witnesses at a retirement home for priests.

In the months since his arrest, Mr. Lynch has refused to discuss a plea deal and has grown intent on using his own legal trouble to try Father Lindner in the court of public opinion in a potentially explosive proceeding likely to include testimony from Mr. Lynch, the priest and several more of his alleged victims.

The trial will take place in Santa Clara County Superior Court, where several other victims are expected to attend. Mr. Lynch faces up to four years in prison if convicted on all charges.

The judge overseeing the case recently ruled that Mr. Lynch’s lawyer can ask the priest about Mr. Lynch’s allegations during cross-examination. If Father Lindner denies the accusations, attorney Pat Harris can call up to three other witnesses who claim they also were molested by Father Lindner as children, including Mr. Lynch’s younger brother.

The Lynches, who were 7 and 4 at the time, were raped in the woods and forced to have oral sex with each other while Father Lindner watched, according to a civil lawsuit. Father Lindner has been accused of abuse by nearly a dozen people, including his own sister and nieces and nephews, but never was criminally charged because the allegations were too old.

Father Lindner hung up Monday when the Associated Press called him for comment. He previously has denied abusing the Lynch boys and said in a deposition from the late 1990s that he didn’t recall the siblings. The brothers settled with the Jesuits of the California Province for $625,000 in 1998.

Getting Father Lindner into court — even as a victim — has helped Mr. Lynch find the peace of mind he’s been searching for his whole life, he said.

“I don’t want to go to jail, but I’ve come to realize that this whole thing is really bigger than me, and the way that I’ve chosen to handle this is to make a statement,” Mr. Lynch told the AP. “I’m prepared to take responsibility for anything I’ve been involved in. I’m willing to do it. I think it’s a small sacrifice to get Father Jerry into court.”

The priest likely will testify at the trial, but Mr. Lynch’s attempt to shame and expose Father Lindner is misguided, Deputy District Attorney Vicki Gemetti said.

Even if the molestation allegations are true, the judge’s order only allows the defense to ask general questions about sexual abuse for the purpose of challenging Father Lindner’s credibility as a witness. Other defense witnesses who allege abuse by the priest can’t be questioned about specific details that could inflame the jury.

“What the jury needs to be deciding is did an assault take place? There might be sympathetic reasons for an assault, but yes, it’s an assault,” Ms. Gemetti said. “The victim is not squeaky clean, but that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t take the law into your own hands.”

It’s unlikely testimony about Mr. Lynch’s abuse allegations could tip the case in his favor — but not impossible, said Jody Armour, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law who specializes in criminal law and social justice issues.

Jurors will have to be reminded not to be swayed by their prejudices or by any sympathy they may feel for Mr. Lynch.

“These are some of the toughest cases in criminal law,” Mr. Armour said. “Even though that jury will be told, ‘Don’t think about this, this is not evidence, it just goes to credibility,’ how are people going to keep those two things separate in their mind?”

There have been several other instances of violence, sometimes fatal, against priests accused of abuse since the Roman Catholic clergy abuse scandal unfolded in 2002.

In Baltimore, a man who claimed he was sodomized and fondled by a priest a decade earlier shot the clergyman three times in 2002 after the priest told him to go away when he demanded an apology. The defendant was acquitted of attempted murder but served 18 months of home detention on a gun conviction.

The following year, priest John Geoghan was strangled in his cell by a fellow inmate who claimed he was chosen by God to kill pedophiles. Geoghan was serving a 9- to 10-year sentence for groping a boy and was at the center of the Boston clergy abuse scandal. He had been accused of molesting as many as 150 boys.

Police said they connected Mr. Lynch to the May 2010 attack using phone records. A half-hour before the beating, a man identifying himself as “Eric” called the rest home and said someone would arrive shortly to inform Father Lindner of a family member’s death.

When Father Lindner showed up in the lobby, Mr. Lynch asked the 65-year-old priest if he recognized him. After the priest said he did not, Mr. Lynch began punching him, according to a police account. On a 911 tape, the assailant can be heard yelling, “Turn yourself in or I’ll (expletive) come back and kill you,” as a receptionist speaks to a dispatcher.

Father Lindner was able to drive himself to the hospital and has since recovered.

Father Lindner was removed from ministry and placed at the Los Gatos retirement home in 2001. He was named in two additional lawsuits for abuse between 1973 and 1985, according to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Those cases were included in the record $660 million settlement between the church and more than 550 plaintiffs in 2007.

Even if he is convicted, Mr. Lynch hopes that facing the priest in court will help him deal with the demons that he said have held him hostage for years. He has battled depression and alcoholism, attempted suicide and a failed marriage.

“He still comes into my dreams now. He just took ownership of me in a way that’s hard to get rid of, and I have to learn how to live with him,” Mr. Lynch said of the priest.

“My expectations are realistic, but I’m also coming into this for the first time sort of in control of my life.”