It is a dark story with an even darker twist: William Lynch, 44, was arrested last month for going into a northern California nursing home, luring an elderly priest into the lobby and beating him bloody. Lynch insists that when he was 7 years old the priest, Jerold Lindner, 65, had sexually molested him.
After Lynch was arrested, the blogosphere lit up with messages of support and protests that he was being charged for a beating that many regarded as well-deserved payback. When Lynch was arraigned in a courtroom in San Jose, Calif., last week on suspicion of assault, his backers marched with signs attacking the Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuse in its ranks and proclaiming "Free Willy."
Lynch has vowed to fight the assault charge against him and to make Lindner who has denied abusing him or anyone else the issue. "Somebody needs to be a face for this abuse, and I'm prepared to put myself on the line," he told the Associated Press.
Yet the question is whether we as a society are prepared for crossing that line. In the 1980s in New York City, Bernhard Goetz a subway rider who shot four young men he believed were menacing him ignited a national debate over vigilantism. Lynch's trial has the potential to raise the same issue for a new generation: When, if ever, does someone have the right to take the law into his own hands?
Lynch's claims are gut-wrenching. He says that he and his younger brother were raped and forced to have oral sex with each other while Lindner watched. The abuse occurred in 1975 on trips to a religious camp, Lynch says. Lindner has been previously accused of abuse by others, including family members, but never charged with anything.
In 1998, Lynch and his brother settled an abuse lawsuit against the Jesuits of the California Province for $625,000. Lindner was removed from active ministry in Los Angeles, but the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution had passed.
Lynch has said he has been traumatized for decades, has suffered from alcohol abuse and depression, and has tried to commit suicide. In 2002, he told the San Jose Mercury News, "I could kill him with my bare hands."
If Lynch tries to beat the charges at trial by invoking the 35-year-old abuse, he may have an uphill battle. It is not clear that a judge would allow Lynch's lawyers to put on evidence of the abuse, and even if the jury found out about it in court or from news reports it would not be a legal excuse for the assault.
Still, it is not out of the question that Lynch could prevail. Juries always have the right to engage in jury nullification to deliver a verdict they believe is just, even if it is not strictly supported by the law or the evidence. Before the Civil War, some northern juries would not convict people who had harbored escaped slaves in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. In the civil rights era, some all-white juries in the South would not convict whites who had committed crimes against blacks.
Should Lynch's actions be similarly excused? Assuming his claims are true, it is hard not to feel deeply sympathetic for him. It seems only right that if he is convicted, his trauma should be taken into account in determining his punishment. But it is something else entirely to say that he should be able to physically attack Lindner with impunity.
Vigilantism, after all, is a poor form of justice. It means individuals and very biased ones, at that have taken it upon themselves to pronounce people guilty and mete out the punishment. All too often, the punishments like the physical one Lynch allegedly delivered are not ones our criminal-justice system imposes, even on the guilty. If more people acted as Lynch is accused of having acted, we would descend into mob rule.
At the same time, vigilante justice and popular support for it can tell us something important about society. Vigilantism thrives where the official justice system is flawed or nonexistent. In the Wild West, the hastily rounded-up posse was often the only kind of law available, and it was seen as better than no law at all.
The issue of vigilantism is particularly resonant right now because the Internet is making it so much easier. At any given moment, a lynch mob is forming somewhere online. Last week, a 60-year-old Massachusetts woman reportedly had to get police protection after a video allegedly showed her delivering a racist rant and physically attacking a black mailman went viral on the Internet.
What all of these cases of vigilantism have in common is the popular impression that the system failed. Many people sympathized with Goetz because they believed that criminals were being allowed to run amok in the subway system. One factor fueling the outrage at the Massachusetts woman was the perception that the courts let grotesque conduct off with a slap on the wrist.
And many of Lynch's supporters believe the legal system has not worked in the case of priest sexual abuse. They see the Catholic Church as having effectively shielded its abusive priests from the law and as having made it possible for them to keep abusing. Some question whether a statute of limitations should be allowed to apply in cases of child sexual abuse.
It is a cliché for a criminal defendant to say he is "putting the system on trial," but that is what defendants like Lynch do. Even as we condemn vigilante acts like his attack, we need to grapple with what they are telling us about the justice system, and how to right that particular wrong.
Cohen, a lawyer who teaches at Yale Law School, is a former TIME writer and a former member of the New York Times editorial board. Case Study, his legal column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.