Father Jerold Lindner always pitched his tent far from everyone else on religious camping trips in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That way, his accusers later said, no one could hear his young victims whimper.
But more than 30 years later, one of those accusers is striking back -- in a rare way chosen by only one of the 16,000 Americans who are known to have been sexually molested by Catholic clerics. Will Lynch, who says he was raped by the man he knew as Father Jerry on a camping trip in the mid-1970s, is accused of beating up the priest -- and he is now using his own assault trial to try the cleric in the court of public opinion.
On the eve of his trial in San Jose, an emotional Lynch talked in an exclusive interview on the 15th floor of a San Francisco hotel about why he's willing to put his freedom on the line to protest a legal system that never made Father Jerry pay.
Even though the Jesuits have doled out millions of dollars to settle cases brought by Lindner's 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.
Lindner has denied the accusations. But a health care administrator who works for the Jesuits testified last year during Lynch's preliminary hearing that Lindner is on a list of molesters living at the Sacred Heart retirement and medical center in Los Gatos.
Lynch could have negotiated
"I want to take responsibility for what I've done," Lynch said. "I don't think I'm above the law like the church and Father Jerry."
Then why pummel the then-65-year-old priest, who suffered multiple bruises and required stitches to close two cuts above his left eye and left ear?
"I did everything I could do under the law," Lynch said. "Where does my moral obligation to myself ... to society, to protect society from him, supersede the law of the land and his rights?"
In early childhood photos, Lynch looks happy, with sparkling blue eyes, chubby cheeks and a sweet little smile. But he said he hasn't been at peace since he was 7 years old and stepped inside Father Jerry's tent. The priest was a spiritual adviser for the Christian Family Movement, a worldwide lay organization of Catholic couples that organized the family camping trips the Lynches attended.
"He broke me, he totally broke me," said Lynch, dissolving into tears. "I can't stand to have to be living as me."
In a shaky voice, Lynch recalled the disastrous summer weekend in 1975 that changed his life.
Father Jerry, who Lynch said had taken to leering at him and forcing him to sit on his lap, cornered the boy in his tent and forced him to have oral sex. That was bad enough. But what happened the next day when the priest once again ordered him into the tent was even worse, he said.
"I got in there and my (4-year-old) brother was already in there," Lynch said, breaking into sobs that lasted throughout the next part of his story. "He didn't look good."
Too scared to run for help for fear the priest would make good on his threat to kill his little sister, Lynch did his feeble best to protect the younger boy.
"I was trying to put myself in between my brother and Father Jerry," he said.
But Lynch said there was no way to stop the priest from forcing them to have oral sex with each other. Lynch says Lindner sodomized him while he lay atop his younger brother, staring helplessly into the little boy's stunned eyes. Lynch never forgave himself for letting it happen.
"I let myself and my family down," he said in a choked voice.
By the time he was in fourth grade in Los Altos, Lynch said he was smoking pot; by seventh, he was dealing it and drinking heavily, "just looking for a way to get out, escaping."
His sudden rebelliousness baffled his parents.
"It was like flicking a switch," he said. He first tried to kill himself when he was 15, by slashing his wrists.
His relationship with his brother soured, never to recover.
They haven't spoken in years.
"We tried to be there for each other," he said. "But every time we see each other, it's a reminder of stuff that happened."
At the campground, Lynch had sternly warned him, "Buddy, we can never tell about this."
And they didn't -- for 20 agonizing years.
It was his brother who finally broke the silence and told their parents. Lynch was furious at first. But in a way, it was a relief. Now they knew what lay behind his angry, self-destructive behavior, including a failed marriage.
"The one thing people don't really understand about this whole thing -- the collateral damage is just ridiculous," Lynch said, explaining his state of mind during his troubled years. "There's no fear. What are you going to do, kill me? Go ahead, take me out of my misery."
Once his secret was out, Lynch said he told his family, "Somebody has got to stop this guy." He asked around and found other kids who had been molested on the camping trips, as well as Lindner's sister, niece and nephew -- a total of 12 children. But prosecutors couldn't charge Lindner with any crimes because of the statute of limitations. In Lynch's case, it was only six years, meaning he would have had to report being sodomized by the time he was 13.
"I thought that justice would be served, I thought that right would be done," said Lynch, 44, an intense man with piercing eyes. "I trusted the system and the players in the game that this would be taken care of."
Bitterly disappointed, he tried a different avenue to keep other kids safe -- he sued the Jesuits and won a settlement, as did some of the other victims. It turned out that Lindner had twice been evaluated at a special psychiatric hospital program for Catholic priests accused of molestation, but he was allowed to return to work.
In 1998, Lynch and his brother were awarded about $187,000 each after legal fees, and the Jesuits sent Lindner to the Los Gatos center. Lindner denied the boys' accusations in a deposition. But in 2002, the priest's own mother said she had once caught him molesting his little sister and was convinced he targeted children.
But Lynch wasn't satisfied with the settlement.
"Then I have to live with, OK, this guy is sitting up here with impunity in Los Gatos, one of the finest places in the country, by the vineyard, overlooking the valley," he said. "There's 18 educational institutions around that place, ranging from preschools, to high schools, to private schools, to charter schools, to day care, to community centers."
His anger and his concern multiplied in 2002 with the shocking news that two developmentally disabled men who lived at the center for more than three decades had been sexually abused by two priests they considered their friends. The Jesuits paid the men $7.5 million to settle their lawsuit.
Two years later, Lynch was also incensed to learn that a Jesuit priest who had been sent to the center because of mental health problems -- not pedophilia -- had committed suicide. The priest's family won a multimillion-dollar legal settlement after filing a wrongful-death lawsuit claiming that his religious superiors at the center failed to protect him from sexual abuse by a priest there.
But horrifying as those incidents were, they occurred about five years before Lynch confronted Lindner. Exactly what set Lynch off -- 35 years after the alleged rape -- and whether he planned for the confrontation to turn violent or not -- may come out if Lynch testifies during his trial, as expected. Lynch would not discuss the encounter, or what led up to it, during the interview.
The main victims group in the United States, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, could recall only one similar attack -- a Baltimore man who admitted pumping three bullets into a priest who had molested him a decade earlier. Dontee Stokes was acquitted in 2002 of attempted murder charges at the height of the national Catholic priest sex scandal; the defrocked priest was convicted of sexually abusing Stokes, though the conviction was later overturned.
Commenting on the rarity of such cases, SNAP's national director, David Clohessy, said "Many victims are fixated on ending the cycle of violence."
Lynch, now living in San Francisco, said he doesn't expect things to turn out as well for him as they did for Stokes. But even if he's convicted and winds up serving time, he said he has no regrets. The outcome so far has given him a measure of peace and satisfaction -- which he expects will soar when Lindner is forced to take the stand in the trial, set to begin Wednesday.
"I've always wanted the opportunity to bring the truth into the light," Lynch said.
"I did (it) for compelling reasons. ... There's a system here that's broken."
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.