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Bethlehem Victim Testifies Against Priest

Dec 5, 2002 | The Express-Times

The Rev. John M. Banko violated the trust of his parishioners by allegedly molesting a boy at his Milford church, Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Solari said Wednesday.

Banko, 56, is accused of having sexual contact with an altar boy at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic church on two occasions in the mid-1990s.

After two days of jury selection, testimony began Wednesday in Banko's trial on sexual assault and child endangerment charges in Hunterdon County Superior Court. The jury includes 10 women and six men. Four will serve as alternate jurors.

"The church is a place that for thousands of years was supposed to be a place of safety," Solari said to the jury during her opening statement. "That drastically changed for a number of people you will hear from today."

Defense attorney Lewis N. White III told jurors Banko would take the witness stand to tell them what happened from his point of view. White implored the jurors not to convict Banko on the testimony of witnesses not directly related to the case.

While Banko faces charges stemming only from the allegations of a 20-year-old Milford man, prosecutors were able to present testimony from the three other men after Judge Ann R. Bartlett ruled it demonstrates Banko's intent and a pattern of abuse.

The priest's alleged victim testified he was an altar boy at St. Edward beginning when he was 10 or 11. He said he assisted Banko and another priest during Mass each week at the church or in a nearby parish center building.

Items used during Mass were stored in a small room in the parish center where the altar servers also donned their robes before a service, the witness said.

He testified it was in that small room that Banko cornered him one Sunday after a Mass the victim had served by himself. He said he saw "Father Jack" close and lock the door to the room.

Banko told him to pull down his pants and he did so, the man said. The priest then performed oral sex on him.

Banko then forced the boy to touch him, the man said.

Banko told him never to tell anyone about the encounter and threatened to harm his family if he did so, the man said.

The episode was repeated a week later, he testified. The man said he didn't tell his parents about the incident.

"I was so terrified he would hurt my parents I didn't say anything," the man said.

Despite a question from a police officer investigating another matter in 1995, the victim did not speak about the encounter until 1999, when he told his girlfriend.

During a cruise in November 1999 with his mother, father and the girlfriend, he suffered an emotional breakdown. He told his girlfriend about the encounters with Banko, and she made him promise to tell his mother, the man testified.

He later contacted the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office which began an investigation in December 1999.

The alleged victim said his family has filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages from Banko and the Diocese of Metuchen, which includes the St. Edward parish.

During cross-examination, White presented a copy of the complaint as evidence and questioned the victim, who said his family has received an offer of settlement from diocesan officials.

A diocesan spokeswoman on Wednesday declined to comment on the settlement.

Asked why he went to authorities with his allegations, the man said he wanted to save others from the ordeal he endured.

Three other men testified Wednesday that Banko had abused them as boys.

A 39-year-old Maryland man said Banko used a relationship the priest formed with his family to carry on a series of sexual encounters and advances throughout the 1970s.

The man said he met Banko when he was a first-grade religion student at a Baltimore Catholic school in the early 1970s. Banko, then a seminarian, formed a bond with the man's family and often visited their home after he became an ordained minister in New Jersey, the man testified.

During several of the visits, he awakened at night to find the priest performing oral sex on him.

"Whenever he came to town, it was understood that we would spend time alone," the man said of the priest's relationship with his family.

The man said Banko used that time alone, in Baltimore and on family vacations the priest attended, to touch him and ply him with alcoholic drinks at restaurants and bars.

The other two men, one a former member of St. Edward and the other a former member of St. Charles Borromeo parish in Somerset County, testified that on separate occasions, Banko used similar patterns to arrange sexual encounters.

Both men, one a 34-year-old Ringoes man and the other a 33-year-old Bethlehem man, said Banko took them to play racquetball. After the game the priest bathed in a hot tub and showered naked with the boys. They also said Banko took them to upscale restaurants where he bought them alcoholic drinks.

Detective Sgt. Lisa Reed of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office also testified Wednesday. She said she confronted Banko with the Milford man's allegations in March 2000. The confrontation took place at Mary Mother of God Roman Catholic Church in Hillsborough, N.J.

"His response was that he sat straight up and said, 'Absolutely not, I'm celibate,'" Reed testified.

Reed said the priest later said he had had sex with a woman and men all over 18, but denied socializing with teenage boys.

During cross-examination, White asked Reed how many potential witnesses she had identified during the prosecutor's investigation. She replied that she had spoken to about 50 individuals, 20 of whom could have served as witnesses to inappropriate behavior.

White asked her how many had reported physical contact with Banko. In addition to the four who testified Wednesday, seven reported physical encounters with the priest, Reed said.

Testimony is scheduled to continue today. Solari said the state plans to call an expert in child sexual abuse as a witness. Bartlett, the judge, has planned for the trial to continue until Dec. 19, but noted Wednesday that testimony is proceeding faster than she had expected.

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