LOS GATOS, CALIFORNIA – William Lynch never disputed that he had punched a retired Catholic priest in an old folks home in Los Gatos. He said the cleric raped him nearly four decades ago, that he had simply snapped when he demanded an admission of guilt. He didn’t expect a jury to overlook the letter of the law and let him go.
But Thursday, in a verdict that drew gasps of astonishment in a San Jose courtroom, the jury said the 44-year-old Lynch was not guilty of felony assault and elder abuse in the 2010 attack on Jerold Lindner, 67.
The panel considered a lesser count of misdemeanor assault – one of the jurors said afterward that several felt compelled to find Lynch guilty of something – but even on that charge, it deadlocked 8-4 for conviction.
As the verdicts were read in Santa Clara County Superior Court, Lynch’s mother, Peggy Lynch, broke into tears. Her son stared straight ahead, a small grin crossing his face. When the jury’s last finding was read, defense attorneys Pat Harris and Paul Mones hugged him and he grinned broadly.
Asked outside court if he had expected to be acquitted of the most serious charges against him, Lynch said, “Honestly, no. I was surprised pleasantly.”
He added, “I feel I can probably have some peace now and move forward.”
‘This is amazing’
His sister, Amanda Lynch, was one of 50 or so supporters who gathered outside the courthouse. She collapsed in tears as she heard of the verdicts.
“This is amazing,” she said. “I never thought it could come out this good.”
One juror said the description in court of the rape that Lynch said the priest committed had “tremendous play” in the panel’s decision.
“We all agreed that it was a heinous act,” said the juror, who asked to not be named. “It was a tough thing to disregard.”
He said he had been among the eight voting for conviction on the misdemeanor assault count, but only because he felt he had to follow legal limitations, “and the defendant admitted hitting the victim.”
Another juror said, “Nobody wanted to convict, but we had to consider what the law says.”
1975 camping trip
Lynch, who lives in San Francisco, testified that the molestation happened on a religious camping trip in 1975, when he was 7 years old. Lindner violently sodomized him and made him and his 4-year-old brother orally copulate each other, he said.
“He told me that if I told on him, he’d kill my parents, kill my brother, kill my sister,” Lynch said.
The nationally watched trial threw a spotlight on the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Mones, a national advocate for clergy abuse victims, said he hoped the case would give new momentum to the issue.
“It’s individuals like Will coming forward who will change the church,” the defense attorney said.
Prosecutors said that even if Lindner molested Lynch, it was not grounds for Lynch to administer his own form of justice.
District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he had sympathy for Lynch, but that the law demanded he prosecute. He said he would decide over the next week whether to retry Lynch on the misdemeanor assault count.
“We do not condone what he did,” Rosen said. However, he added, “this case is also about Mr. Lindner and those who have escaped justice for the awful crimes they have done against children.”
Lindner was not in court for the verdicts.
Throngs of Lynch’s supporters massed outside the courthouse entrance every day of the two-week trial, waving signs with such sentiments as, “Catholic Church: Stop harboring pedophiles,” and hurling insults at Lindner and his lawyers whenever they showed up.
‘I hated myself’
Lynch argued that his attack was justified considering the trauma he has endured since Lindner allegedly molested him and his brother on the camping trip to the Santa Cruz Mountains. As he grew, he said, “I hated myself. There was a lot of fear and shame and guilt.”