In emotional testimony, an ex-altar boy details alleged abuse in priests' trial

The Rev. James Brennan arrives at court. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff
The Rev. James Brennan arrives at court. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff (The Rev. James Brennan)
Posted: April 05, 2012

During three hours of emotional and sometimes contentious testimony, a former Bucks County altar boy Wednesday described how a priest in the landmark child-sex abuse and conspiracy trial molested him during an overnight visit when he was 14.

The man, now 30, broke down several times recounting the alleged 1996 assault by the Rev. James J. Brennan that he said plunged him into a spiral of drugs and crime and still haunts him.

He said Brennan, his onetime parish priest and a longtime family friend, showed him online sex-chat rooms, proposed they masturbate, then ordered him into a bed where, clad in plaid boxer shorts, the cleric pulled him close and pressed his private parts against the boy.

"He kept pulling me forward, forward, forward," the witness said, fighting tears. "I couldn't get off the bed. I still feel the sensation today. It's horrible."

The testimony did not stand unchallenged.

The priest's lawyer, William Brennan, who is no relation to his client, repeatedly asked the accuser to explain inconsistencies in accounts he gave authorities over the years, reminded jurors about his convictions, and highlighted a lawsuit he filed that demands money from the church.

Wearied after two hours of cross-examination, the witness, who was identified in the grand jury report as "Mark," pleaded with Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina to break for the day. "I can't do any more," he said.

With the lawyers' consent, Sarmina halted the proceedings.

The witness' name is being withheld by The Inquirer because of the nature of his allegations.

The developments were the most dramatic - and likely the most significant - since the trial began last week for Brennan and Msgr. William J. Lynn, the former secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

A nearly packed courtroom listened as the man outlined the details of an alleged assault that he said pushed him to the brink of suicide, and then watched as the lawyers parsed his words, drew anatomical sketches for jurors, and quibbled over the definition of spooning in bed.

The jury had already heard from four other alleged abuse victims, but each had described being molested decades ago by priests who have been defrocked, died or are not charged in the case.

Unlike those claims, the Bucks County man's allegation fell within a newly amended criminal statute of limitations for child-sex crimes and became a cornerstone of the February 2011 grand jury report that led to the trial against Lynn and Brennan.

Prosecutors say Lynn, as the official who recommended archdiocesan priests' assignments and investigated their misconduct, enabled or covered up abuse by failing to act against priests suspected or known to abuse children. One such priest, they say, was Brennan, who has been on restricted ministry since the accusation emerged in 2006.

He and Lynn have denied any wrongdoing. A third defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty to related charges before trial.

The 30-year-old witness said that he came from a devout Catholic family and that Brennan, once his parish priest at St. Andrew's Church, was a fixture at his house. The priest drank with his mother, took him and his brother golfing, and showed the teens how to smoke, he said.

"He was like an uncle," he said. "We called him Jim. Everyone thought he was cool."

According to Mark, Brennan was on a leave from the archdiocese when he invited the boy, then 14, to spend the night at his West Chester apartment in the summer of 1996. Mark said he was eating his favorite cereal, Crunchberries, when, as a joke, he used cereal pieces to form a phallic symbol on the table.

Mark said he was confused when Brennan looked at the symbol and told him: "If you want to stop this, we can stop this now."

The priest then showed him an Internet sex-chat room, began asking about his private parts, and masturbated in a corner, he said. Then he directed Mark to join him in the bed.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti asked why he obeyed.

"I was afraid, if I said no, he would kill me," Mark testified. "I was a little boy. I didn't know what to do."

As Brennan wrapped his hands more tightly around him on the bed, Mark said, he closed his eyes, prayed for it to end, and fell asleep.

He conceded he couldn't be sure what happened next. He said he recalled telling his mother the following day that Brennan molested him. Mark said his parents confronted the priest, but Brennan downplayed the incident as a misunderstanding.

In the ensuing years, Mark said, he began using drugs and racked up convictions for theft, identity theft, receiving stolen property, and making false statements to police.

He acknowledged attempting suicide three times - including once while in the Marines - and repeatedly undergoing treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems, including a hospital stay that ended late last month.

But conflicting signs have emerged about his account. The grand jury report and a lawsuit filed by the man said that Brennan had anally raped him, an accusation that led prosecutors to charge Brennan with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

Late last year, they amended that charge to attempted rape, and a prosecutor last week told jurors that Mark was wearing underwear when the assault occurred.

In court filings, defense lawyers William Brennan and Richard Fuschino described him as "a serial confabulator" and urged the judge to let them interrogate him on the details of his record, which they say includes "colorful, elaborate lies" to law enforcement.

She denied that request. Still, William Brennan spent two hours of cross-examination trying to chip away at the witness' credibility, challenging his memory and suggesting his story keeps changing.

He noted that Mark remembered the attack vividly, but couldn't recall what day or even month it occurred.

"Have you ever had a trauma?" the witness shot back, saying that doctors have told him it was common to block out the insignificant details of such an experience. "When a trauma happens, you focus on the trauma."

Several times, the witness complained that the lawyer was being combative, aggressive, or unprofessional.

Brennan said he was trying to defend his client. "Please, I'm trying to work with you here," he told the witness.

"No," Mark said, "you're not."

The exchange is scheduled to resume Thursday.


Contact John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or at jmartin@phillynews.com. Follow him @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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