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Abuse Testimony Ruled Valid For Priest's Trial

Nov 19, 2002 | The Express-Times

A former Milford priest's pattern of sexually abusing boys extends back to the 1970s when he taught at a Baltimore Roman Catholic school, one of his alleged victims testified Monday in Hunterdon County Superior Court.

That testimony will be presented by prosecutors when the Rev. John M. Banko stands trial next month on charges he sexually assaulted an altar boy when he was a priest at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church on Mill Street in Milford, Judge Ann R. Bartlett ruled Monday.

Prosecutors allege Banko, 56, performed oral sex on the boy and forced the boy to touch his genitals on several occasions between September 1993 and September 1994. He is charged with one count each of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault and third-degree endangering the welfare of a child.

His trial is scheduled to begin Dec. 2.

The hearing Monday was to allow the judge to determine whether the testimony about the earlier alleged sexual assault is admissible under New Jersey's evidence law during Banko's trial. Three other men from Hunterdon County, Middlesex County and Bethlehem testified in February they were sexually abused by Banko during the 1980s and 1990s and will also testify at his trial.

The man who testified Monday is now 39 and lives in Stevenson, Md., with his wife and three children. His name is being withheld to protect his identity.

Questioned by Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Solari, the man recalled his boyhood and painted a picture of Banko as a young priest who was trusted and considered a close friend by his family.

He said he first met Banko in the early 1970s when he was about 7 and a student at St. Mary's Boys' Latin School in Baltimore where the priest was his teacher.

Because Banko's class was very small, he and the priest developed a close relationship which extended to his family and continued after Banko moved to New Jersey, the man testified.

The alleged abuse began when the man was about 10 and he and Banko shared a bedroom during the priest's visits, he said.

It started with Banko casually touching the boy's genitals as he tucked him in at night, the man said. The man testified that he believed at first the contact was accidental, but the contact soon turned into hugging and fondling.

The man said he woke at least once to find Banko performing oral sex on him. He also recalled waking to find Banko standing naked with Banko's erect penis close to his face.

"I just remember waking up being very frightened and hoping it would just go away," the man said.

As he grew older Banko remained close to the family and the contact continued on vacations to a Delaware beach town. As a teenager he said he went to bars and restaurants with Banko, who bought him beer and mixed drinks.

Although Banko continued touching him inappropriately he never mentioned it specifically to his family, the man testified. He said Banko said the two had a special relationship.

The man said he later told his mother only that the priest had behaved inappropriately. He approached officials in the Archdiocese of Baltimore with his allegations earlier this year because he wanted to be sure Banko did not continue the behavior with other boys.

The last time Banko touched him, the man said he was about 20 and Banko put his hand in the man's lap at a bar. The man said he told Banko never to touch him again. He said he last saw Banko about 1984 when the priest visited his family's Baltimore home with a boy between 11 and 13 years old.

"I just remember feeling very uncomfortable with the situation and feeling sorry for the boy," the man said.

The hearing Monday was halted about 11:30 a.m. because Banko's attorney, Lewis White III, had to attend a funeral and Banko had to go home to take care of his ailing mother. The hearing was set to resume about 2 p.m. but White never returned.

Bartlett said about 3 p.m. White called to tell her he was waiving his right to cross-examine Banko's accuser and would rest his case in the hearing. White could not be reached for comment later Monday.

Bartlett said she will allow the Maryland man to testify during the priest's trial because his story meets the criteria for testimony of so-called prior bad acts. It will establish Banko's intent and motive and shows the absence of mistake and accident in the incidents for which he is charged.

"This is now the earliest in a stream of seductions," Bartlett said. "There is now a pattern of seduction that time after time after time was aimed at boys from 7 to 15."

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