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Monica Yant Kinney: Accuser holds up well on witness stand at clergy sex abuse trial

For a lying, scheming criminal and junkie, he cleaned up well, and, under bruising cross-examination, more than held his own.

For a lying, scheming criminal and junkie, he cleaned up well, and, under bruising cross-examination, more than held his own.

If I had to score Round One of the most important testimony to date in the trial concerning sex abuse and conspiracy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I'd give it to the beleaguered - yet believable - 30-year-old victim staring at his alleged abuser in court.

"Mark," as he was labeled in the 2011 grand jury report, is the Bucks County man charging a criminal breach of trust by the Rev. James J. Brennan, a priest and family friend he thought of as an uncle.

Brennan stands accused of the 1996 attempted rape of Mark in a West Chester apartment. But for nearly three hours Wednesday, it was Mark - who has spent the last decade in jail, on suicide watch or undergoing psychiatric treatment - who found himself on trial.

"All of these crimes were caused because you were victimized and traumatized by Father Brennan?" asked the priest's incredulous defense attorney, William Brennan, who is no relation.

"To a certain extent, yes," Mark calmly replied. He pleaded guilty to a slew of theft and fraud charges, messes he made trying to escape the "shameful" effects of abuse.

"Every one of my crimes was drug-related," he testified. "I was mentally ill. I was sick."

A scarred soul surprises

Having read Mark's criminal file, the grand jury report, and his civil lawsuit against Brennan and the archdiocese, I had low expectations. So many abuse victims wind up leading such tortured lives, surely this tragic young man would fall apart on the witness stand.

I'd forgotten that Mark was a Marine. In spite of everything he's endured, he strode confidently into the courtroom, with a shaved head and chiseled face, wearing crisp gray pants, navy vest, and tie. That Mark was battle ready was all the more amazing given that just a week earlier he'd been confined to another mental-health facility.

Jurors learned that Brennan was practically a member of Mark's family, a regular at cookouts and graduation parties. He sang the nights away with Mark's mother. He played beer pong. He took Mark golfing and to Gettysburg.

"When the collar came down, he was just Jim," Mark recalled wistfully. "He was one of the guys."

Mark was 14 the night of a 1996 sleepover that changed both of their lives forever.

"He was wearing plaid boxers," Mark recalled, one of many times he broke down and cried. That image "will never leave my brain."

Attorney vs. addict

Defense attorney Brennan must discredit Mark to save his client, so I can't blame him for trying to rough up the opponent. But I'm certain I wasn't the only person in the courtroom surprised to see Mark resist most of the rattling.

"You're pretty aggressive," Mark noted after a tough line of questioning.

"I'm sorry," Mark added later in therapy-speak, "I just feel you being very combative right now."

Back and forth, Brennan dragged Mark between statements made in 2006 and 1999, 2010 and 1996, testing an only recently sober man's evolving memory of a teenage horror he'd rather forget.

"These things happened," Mark insisted. "I'm telling the truth. If you want to sit here and say I'm misremembering, I'm sorry. I'm doing my best."

Some unretrievable details - like how Mark got to the Jersey Shore after the alleged attack - were dismissed as insignificant. Other specifics - like how close to the edge of the bed Mark lay when Brennan ordered him to join him - are indelible.

How he ever fell asleep - after wetting himself, still in Brennan's grip - remains an unsolved mystery Mark chalks up to faith.

"I just kept asking God to help me."

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