Priest Denies Sex with Altar Boy in His Church

By Katie Wang
Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)
August 3, 2001

A former Catholic pastor in Milford entered a not guilty plea yesterday to charges that he sexually assaulted an 11-year-old altar boy in the church eight years ago.

John M. Banko, 55, appeared in Superior Court in Flemington yesterday to answer a charge of first- degree aggravated sexual assault, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail. He also has been charged with child endangerment.

Banko was pastor at St. Edward's Roman Catholic Church for six years before the Diocese of Metuchen removed him in 1995, transferring him to the Mary Mother of God Church in Hillsborough. He was relieved of that assignment in April 2000, shortly after the prosecutor's office began its investigation.

He is living in Trenton and taking care of his ailing mother, his attorney, Lewis N. White, said.

Assistant Prosecutor Dawn Solari said there are other similar allegations involving underage boys, but she could not prosecute them because the statute of limitations has expired on those charges.

Solari said the other alleged victims were parishioners who were touched improperly. She said the accusations emerged during their investigation.

Banko is accused of assaulting the altar boy after serving Mass one day between September 1993 and September 1994. The victim could not recall the exact date of the assault, Solari said. The victim disclosed the alleged assault to a friend soon thereafter, but the prosecutor's office wasn't notified until December 1999.

"We did an extensive investigation," Solari said. "We went to the parish, interviewed many, many parishioners and took statements from them."

Banko stood silently in court yesterday, donning his priest's collar. His attorney said the accusations might be the result of a personal dispute between the parents of the accuser and the priest.

"There's some indication that the parents of the boy left the church because they were unhappy with the way the church was run," White said.

White also questioned the accuser's memory and the timing of the accusation.

Bishop Vincent DePaul Breen, spiritual leader of the Diocese of Metuchen, issued a statement expressing sorrow and regret for the victim and his family. Breen said the diocese has been fully cooperating with investigators and that Banko was relieved of his duties.

"This action is not taken because we have made a judgment to father's guilt or innocence of the charges, but rather as a precaution to protect the interests of all concerned," Breen said. "The Diocese of Metuchen has been blessed with many generous and caring priests who strive for personal holiness in their lives and we pray that this incident will not undermine the confidence and trust our people place in their priests."

The diocese refused to answer any other questions about the matter.


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