The former pastor of a Roman Catholic church has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for molesting an 11-year-old altar boy in the sacristy of the church’s community center.
Superior Court Judge Anne R. Bartlett called the sexual assaults by the Rev. John M. Banko “abhorrent,” and said his sentence should be “broadcast through the land” as a warning to other pedophile clergy.
Banko, 57, continues to maintain his innocence.
Shortly before Bartlett sentenced the priest on Tuesday, 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.”
Banko is the first Catholic priest to be convicted of sexual assault in New Jersey since the national priest sex abuse scandal erupted in January 2002. Nationwide, at least 50 priests have been convicted since the scandal broke, according to Survivors First, a victims’ group.
In the Banko case, the two incidents of sexual abuse occurred about 10 years ago, after Masses at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Milford, Hunterdon County.
“I still maintain my innocence,” Banko told the judge. “I’ve heard horrible things said about me. 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’s attorney, Lewis White, said the priest plans to appeal his conviction for aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child.
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 Skillman.
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.