A priest from Hamilton who was ordained in the Diocese of Trenton has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for molesting an 11-year-old altar boy in a Hunterdon County church nearly 10 years ago.
The Rev. John M. Banko is the first Catholic priest to be convicted of sexual assault in New Jersey since the national priest sex abuse scandal broke last year.
Mark Serrano, a spokesman for The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national group representing victims, called Banko’s sentence an important step for justice for the survivors of abuse.
“Few cases in America have reached this point of justice, though so many thousands of Father Banko’s fellow clerics in America have committed these same crimes with the support of their bishops,” Serrano said. “This is why the laws in New Jersey and throughout the country must be revised to allow for truth, healing and justice to be achieved.”
Serrano said he hopes the 18-year sentence will mark the first step in healing for Banko’s victims.
“While Father Banko received an 18-year sentence for some of his crimes, his victims received life sentences of pain and anguish long ago,” Serrano said. “We commend Superior Court Judge Anne R. Bartlett for her compassion toward the victims and her commitment to unwavering and forceful justice for someone who is responsible for `this theft of innocence.’ ”
During sentencing Tuesday, Bartlett called the sexual assaults by Banko abhorrent and said his sentence should be “broadcast through the land” as a warning to other pedophile clergy.
Shortly before Banko was sentenced, the victim’s mother read an emotional letter to the judge describing how her son had been tortured by his memories.
“One morning, we sent our son off to church, which we thought was a safe place, never to return home the same boy again,” said the woman. “John Banko stole our son’s childhood and innocence.”
Two incidents of sexual abuse occurred in September 1993 after Masses at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Milford.
On two consecutive Sundays after Mass, Banko allegedly performed oral sex on the boy and then had the boy touch him. The boy told a family friend about the incidents in 1999.
Three other men made allegations of sexual misconduct against Banko. During the trial, they testified that Banko plied them with lavish dinners and alcohol, then attempted to molest them almost two decades ago.
One man, now 35, testified that during one incident in the 1980s, Banko was leering at him in the shower of the Hillsborough Racquet Club while masturbating.
Banko was pastor of St. Charles Borromeo in Montgomery at the time, and he and the high school-aged boy often played racquetball, followed sometimes by stints in a hot tub and a common shower area. The man said Banko once grabbed his buttocks with both hands while at a family dinner.
Added to these incidents, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced last summer allegations that Banko allegedly abused a minor when he was a seminary student at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.
Banko, 57, has continued to maintain his innocence. His attorney, Lewis White III of New Brunswick, said the priest plans to appeal his conviction for aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child.
“I’ve heard horrible things said about me,” Banko told the judge. “It tears me up inside. I hope that all of us can pick up the pieces, that all of us move on and that all of us be healed.”
Banko spent 30 years as a priest in the dioceses of Metuchen and Trenton, including a decade at the former St. Pius X High School in Piscataway and seven years as pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Montgomery.
The Diocese of Metuchen agreed to a financial settlement with the family of Banko’s victim earlier this year as part of a larger settlement with several other priest sex abuse victims.
The Rev. Paul Bootkoski, bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, has been praised as a role model by SNAP, partially for how he handled the Banko case.
He fully cooperated in the successful criminal proceedings against Banko and refused to let Banko wear his Roman Catholic collar in court.
Nationwide, at least 50 priests have been convicted.