A priest described as having a pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior toward minors dating back 30 years was convicted Wednesday of molesting an altar boy.
The Rev. John Banko was the first New Jersey priest brought to trial in a sex case since the Roman Catholic church became embroiled in a national scandal this year.
After less than two days of deliberations, the jury convicted Banko of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault, and child endangerment. The abuse with the boy, now 20, happened in St. Edwards Roman Catholic Church’s community center in Milford.
Banko could face up to 35 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 7. He had no reaction as the verdict was read. The victim buried his head in his hands.
“We’ve waited a long time for this,” the victim’s mother said. “I’m just glad it’s over. My son can get back to, maybe, a normal life.”
Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Solari said the verdict may send a message to other victims of sexual abuse.
“I hope it would encourage them to come forward and deal with the system,” Solari said. “There may be more people out there that are in similar circumstances and I hope they can see that the system worked in this case.”
Banko, 56, of Hamilton Township, denied the charges when he testified Monday. But during cross-examination, Banko acknowledged sexual liaisons with both men and women. He also told investigators that his vow of celibacy as a priest made no direct mention of abstaining from sex.
“I like to give close hugs to everyone, male or female,” Banko said Monday. “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.”
The former altar boy and three other men testified to what the prosecution called a pattern of sexually inappropriate behavior toward minors dating back to when Banko was in St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore 30 years ago.
Robert Becker, one of the jurors, declined to comment on the case beyond saying that reaching a verdict was “very difficult and emotional.”
Banko 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 acts of which Father Banko has been adjudged guilty were abhorrent,” Ronald C. Rak, a spokesman for the diocese, said in a statement released Wednesday “Such conduct on the part of anyone affiliated with the diocese is not, and will not, be tolerated.”
Banko had his bail revoked Wednesday and was sent to the Hunterdon County Jail. He was later to be sent to a treatment center in Avenel for a psychological evaluation.