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Priest Denies Molesting Altar Boy

Dec 10, 2002 | AP A former pastor of a Roman Catholic church, testifying in his own defense, denied that he twice molested an 11-year-old altar boy after Sunday Masses.

The trial of the Rev. John M. Banko is the first criminal proceeding of a New Jersey cleric since sex abuse in the church became a national scandal.

Banko, 56, is accused of performing oral sex on the boy in a dressing room next to the altar of St. Edward Roman Catholic Church's community center in Milford about nine years ago.

"It never happened," Banko testified Monday while being questioned by his lawyer, Lewis White. "I was totally shocked when I found out (about the charges)."

Banko, of Hamilton Township in Mercer County, took the stand dressed in a sport coat and button-down shirt open at the collar. He was relieved of his priestly duties in April 2000 after the Hunterdon County prosecutor's office alerted the Metuchen diocese of its criminal investigation.

The former altar boy, now 20, testified last week that he was changing out of his altar boy robe when Banko, known to parishioners as "Father Jack," told the boy to pull down his pants.

Banko also denied the accounts of three other men who have testified that Banko made sexual advances to them. That evidence of "prior bad acts" is not part of the criminal charges against Banko.

"I like to give close hugs to everyone, male or female," Banko said. "If my hands slid down, then it happened. I am a very affectionate person. I love to show my affections freely. I can see how that would be misinterpreted."

Under questioning by Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Dawn M. Solari, Banko admitted that he told investigators that he has had sex with men and women who were over 18.

"I was not always a priest," Banko said. However, Banko also said "the promise of celibacy" he took when ordained in 1971 makes no direct mention of abstaining from sex.

Prosecutors said Banko had a pattern of seducing young boys dating back to when he was in St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore 30 years ago.

He faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault and third-degree child endangerment.

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