LOS GATOS (CBS/AP) – The priest at the heart of an assault trial testified Wednesday that he never molested the man accused of assaulting him.
Lawyers say the Rev. Jerold Lindner was called to the witness stand late Wednesday in the San Jose trial of William Lynch. Lindner was expected to continue testifying Thursday and endure cross-examination where he will be asked again whether he abused Lynch.
Lynch, 44, is accused of beating the Lindner in May 2010 at a Los Gatos retirement home for priests near San Jose. He has pleaded not guilty, and his trial began with opening statements Wednesday. Lynch claims Lindner raped him in 1975 when he was 7 years old.
Prosecutors concede Lindner is lying when he denies he molested Lynch and Lynch’s 4-year-old brother during a church camping trip, but prosecutors also argue that’s no defense against assault charges. The Catholic Church earlier settled a civil lawsuit the brothers filed.
Outside court, Lynch’s attorney called for prosecutors to charge Lindner with perjury. Santa Clara deputy district attorney Vicki Gemetti didn’t respond to email and phone inquiries.
Earlier she told the jury she expected Lindner to falsely deny sexually abusing Lynch.
Nonetheless, she said “it is unmistakeable he was beaten” and that Lynch is guilty of assault and elder abuse regardless of Lindner’s false denials and “past sins and crimes.”
Gemetti began her 20-minute opening by displaying a blown-up photograph of a bruised and bloodied Lindner slumped in a chair. She implored jurors to focus solely on the assault, which she said Lynch “undeniably” committed.
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“The defendant beat this man up because he was angry and he wanted revenge,” she said. “The defendant planned and executed a violent attack against the man who molested him 30 years ago.”
But Gemetti said the molestation was not a defense to the charges. She called Lynch’s actions illegal “vigilante” justice.
Lynch’s lawyer Pat Harris displayed photos of the two brothers from around the time of the camping trip during his opening statement.
“This case did not begin in 2010,” Harris said. “It began on a holiday weekend in the mid-1970s.”
Harris denied that Lynch intended to assault the priest when he showed up at the retirement home. Harris didn’t go into details during his own 20-minute opening statement, but promised the jury Lynch would testify and explain his actions.
Harris told the jurors to take the priest’s credibility into account when deciding the case.
Gemetti showed jurors a short video clip of an emotional Lynch describing the abuse he allegedly suffered at Lindner’s hands in a tent during a church camping trip when he was seven. On the video, Lynch said he felt it was his moral duty to attack the priest.
“I’m empowered,” Lynch said. “I’m in charge of my destiny.”
Lynch is charged with felony counts of assault and elder abuse.
In the months since his arrest, Lynch has refused to discuss a
plea deal with prosecutors and has grown intent on using his own legal trouble to try Lindner in the court of public opinion in a potentially explosive proceeding. It’s likely to also include testimony from more of Lindner’s alleged victims.
Lynch faces up to four years in prison if convicted on all charges.
During the lunch break, several protestors carrying large signs decrying the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy demonstrated outside the courthouse. Dozens of spectators were denied entrance to the 66-seat courtroom after it quickly filled to capacity Wednesday morning.
The judge overseeing the case recently ruled that Harris can ask the priest about Lynch’s allegations during cross-examination. If Lindner denies the accusations, Harris can call up to three other witnesses who claim they were also molested by Lindner as children, including 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 Lindner watched, according to a civil lawsuit. Lindner has been accused of abuse by nearly a dozen people, including his own sister and nieces and nephews, but was never criminally charged because the allegations were too old.
Lindner hung up Monday when The Associated Press called him for comment. He has previously 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 Lindner into court—even as a victim—has helped 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,” 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.”
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 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.
It’s unlikely testimony about 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 Lynch.
“These are some of the toughest cases in criminal law,” 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?”
Police said they connected 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 Lindner of a family member’s death.
When Lindner showed up in the lobby, Lynch asked the 65-year-old priest if he recognized him. After the priest said he did not, 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.
Lindner was able to drive himself to the hospital and has since recovered.
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, 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 his marriage failed.
“My expectations are realistic,” Lynch said, “but I’m also coming into this for the first time sort of in control of my life.”
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