A former altar boy testified he was molested by the pastor of his Milford church more than eight years ago.
The testimony came Wednesday at the first criminal trial of a New Jersey priest accused of sexual assault since the issue gained national attention.
The Rev. John M. Banko, 56, is accused of performing oral sex on the boy, then age 11, after two Sunday Masses in a dressing room next to the altar of St. Edward Roman Catholic Church’s community center.
The former altar boy, now 20, testified that he was changing out of his altar boy robe when Banko, known to parishioners as “Father Jack,” walked in the room.
“I saw Father Jack walk in, close the door and lock the door behind him,” said the man, whose name is being withheld because of the nature of the crime. “He told me to pull my pants down.”
Three other men who said they were subject to sexual advances by Banko also testified on the first day of the trial.
One testified in state Hunterdon County Superior Court that Banko performed oral sex on him several times when he was between the ages of 11 and 14.
Prosecutors said Banko had a pattern of seducing young boys that dates back to when he was in the St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore 30 years ago.
Banko, of Hamilton Township in Mercer County, denies the charges and is expected to testify in his own defense, his attorney Lewis White said.
Banko could go to prison for 35 years if convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault and third-degree child endangerment.
Earlier this week, the five Catholic dioceses in New Jersey signed an agreement with the state’s Attorney General’s Office to refer all reports of sex abuse to authorities.
The man, who quit as an altar boy and stopped attending the church after the second alleged incident, said he kept the assaults secret because the priest threatened his family.
“He told me if I said anything, he would harm my parents,” the man said. “I was terrified. I just kept it in.”
After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1999, the man finally told his mother.
The man, when questioned by Banko’s attorney, said he had also brought a civil suit seeking monetary compensation against Banko, the dioceses of Metuchen and Trenton, and other church leaders. He said a settlement was reached with the Diocese of Metuchen several weeks ago.
Banko was relieved of his priestly duties in April 2000 after the Hunterdon County Prosecutor’s Office alerted the Metuchen diocese to the ongoing criminal investigation.