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Milford Man To Receive Portion of Cash Settlement With Diocese

Jan 29, 2003 | The Express-Times

A Milford man will receive $133,000 as part of an $800,000 settlement between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Metuchen and victims of abuse by clergy.

Advocates for victims of priestly abuse hailed the settlement as an encouraging step toward better treatment of victims because it resolves cases that might have been dismissed on technicalities.

"It's enormously significant because it demonstrates that Metuchen is willing to take the moral high ground. If they had chosen to litigate these, a judge would have thrown them out of his courtroom," said Ben "Buddy" Cotton, New Jersey director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The Milford man testified last month in the sexual abuse trial of the Rev. John M. Banko. He said the former Milford priest had abused him after Sunday Masses at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church on two occasions when he was an altar boy in 1993 or '94.

Banko was convicted of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and child endangerment. He is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 7.

Banko's victim, now 20, filed a civil lawsuit in April against the Metuchen diocese, Banko and other church officials. His attorney, Patrick Bradshaw of New Brunswick, N.J., announced the settlement Tuesday.

Bradshaw said the money will be divided between his client and nine others who sued the diocese or confronted church officials with allegations of abuse. His client will receive the largest share of the settlement because of the severity of his abuse and other factors agreed upon by those involved.

Diocesan officials declined to comment on the terms of the settlement, but said it is the result of new procedures for handling allegations of abuse recently adopted by the diocese.

Money for the settlement will come from diocesan investments and not from its annual appeal to members of the diocese's churches, a diocesan spokeswoman said.

Ronald Rak, diocesan general secretary for administrative and legal affairs, said the diocese began discussions with the victims following investigations by the diocesan sexual abuse response team.

The response team, a group of clergy and laypeople, interviewed the victims and determined that their allegations were credible, Rak said.

In conjunction with the settlement, Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski extended an invitation to meet with the 10 victims named in the settlement and their families, Rak said.

"The bishop felt that it was the appropriate thing to do and felt that as bishop of the diocese, he had heard what (the victims) were saying," Rak said.

The father of Banko's victim said his son met with Bootkoski earlier this month. With his parents and grandparents, the victim spent about an hour with the bishop, who apologized and explained how the diocese is working to help victims and protect children from further abuse, the father said.

"It was a nice gesture. I don't think that it provides more closure, but it was nice on the bishop's part," the father said. "We're just trying to get our son's life back to normal."

The father declined to comment on the monetary settlement, saying only that he would gladly give the money for his son to have had a normal childhood.

The Metuchen diocese's agreement to settle the abuse cases is a departure from the legal strategy other New Jersey dioceses have used, said SNAP director Cotton.

The Metuchen settlement is unusual because many of the cases fall outside the state's two-year statute of limitations on personal injury claims.

"The Camden diocese marches a parade of defense attorneys before the judge who argue vociferously that this case should be thrown out of New Jersey court because it is outside the limitation," Cotton said.

Edward Ross of the Margate, N.J., law firm of Ross & Rubino said the settlement process spared victims the need to testify about their abuse in public.

"This was done without counsel, as, you might say, a heart-to-heart meeting. It served to heal and inform," Ross said.

Ross said his partner, Stephen Rubino, is recognized around the nation as an expert on litigation over sexual abuse by clergy.

"We know the other side of the coin too, when it has to be litigated, and it can be very distressing to everyone involved, especially the victim," Ross said.

Mark Serrano, founder of the New Jersey chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, praised the Metuchen diocese for its efforts to help victims and stop priestly abuse.

"Without a doubt we have seen more from the diocese of Metuchen in the past few weeks than we have seen from Newark, Patterson and Camden combined," said Serrano, a former Mendham, N.J., resident now living in Leesburg, Va.

"To that extent, I will definitely credit Bishop Bootkoski over his brother bishops elsewhere in the state."

The diocese has adopted procedures for handling sex abuse claims in accord with provisions of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, drafted in June by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Rak said.

Church officials are now instructed to report all allegations of abuse to county prosecutors.

"We have an understanding that all claims will be reported to the prosecutors whether we feel they are credible or not, understanding that the prosecutors are best equipped to investigate such claims," Rak said.

Diocesan officials will also report all claims of abuse to the state Division of Youth and Family Services. The diocese has also agreed to cooperate with the New Jersey Attorney General's Office in investigations of misconduct, Rak said.

Diocesan officials have also met with members of SNAP and other victims groups to identify other ways to help victims, Rak said.

Banko is the second priest in the Diocese of Metuchen publicly involved in a sexual abuse case since the diocese was founded in 1981.

Michael Santillo was defrocked after he admitted to molesting three altar boys. The assaults occurred in 1987 and in 1999. Santillo died in 2000 after he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Banko served as pastor at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Church in Milford from 1989 to 1995. Diocesan officials are now taking action to defrock him, Rak said.

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