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Priest Faces Prison As Jury Begins Deliberating His Fate

Dec 11, 2002 | New Jersey Times After three days of testimony in the sexual abuse trial of the Rev. John M. Banko, jurors began deliberating late Tuesday morning on the fate of the Roman Catholic priest.

The trial included emotional testimony from a 20-year-old Milford man who said Banko molested him after Sunday Masses at St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic church in 1993 or 1994 when he was an altar boy there. The man testified Dec. 4 he was 10 or 11 at the time.

Other witnesses included three older men who said the 56-year-old priest made inappropriate advances toward them between 1970 and the early 1990s.

Banko took the witness stand himself Monday to deny the allegations.

The jury began weighing the evidence about 11:45 a.m. Tuesday but did not reach a verdict by late afternoon. Deliberations will continue today.

Defense attorney Lewis N. White III rested his case in Hunterdon County Superior Court after calling two additional character witnesses. White delivered a brief closing argument in which he said the prosecution failed to prove its case.

"The presumption of innocence should prevail and the state has not met the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the particular crime charged occurred," White said.

He asked the panel of nine women and five men to consider the credibility of the witnesses in their deliberations.

"You must judge people on how they speak and carry themselves," he said.

He also reviewed the testimony of seven character witnesses who said Banko was regarded as trustworthy and had no reputation for sexual promiscuity.

White also asked the jurors to consider Banko's case separately from the national sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church recently.

"There has been a great deal of danger of bias over the last few years," White said. "If you can, be impartial about this matter. Put all of this publicity out of your mind."

In her summation, Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Solari recalled her opening argument.

"This case is about violation, various different kinds of violation," she said. "Violation of trust. Violation (by) someone in authority and in a position of leadership and a violation of people's bodies young boys' and young men's bodies."

Solari asked the jurors to think of how the victim felt when it was happening.

"Don't look at him as a 20-year-old man. Look at him as an 11-year-old altar boy locked in a room being abused by this priest," Solari said.

After deliberating over lunch, the jury returned to the courtroom to review the testimony of the former altar boy, Detective Sgt. Lisa Reed of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office and Banko.

The victim's mother and father were not present when their son testified last week. But as a videotape of his testimony played on a monitor at the front of the courtroom on Tuesday, the father wiped tears from his eyes.

Superior Court Judge Ann R. Bartlett allowed the jury to continue deliberating briefly after viewing the videotaped testimony. Bartlett declined to answer the jury's question about the maximum sentences for each of the three counts against the priest.

Banko, of Hamilton Township, Mercer County, is charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault and third-degree child endangerment.

Although a conviction on all counts could mean up to 35 years in prison, Banko would likely receive simultaneous sentences if he is convicted, Solari said Tuesday. The most serious charge against Banko carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

If the jury returns a guilty verdict, Solari plans to ask the judge to revoke his bail. Banko has been free on bail since his indictment in June 2001.

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