By Natasja Sheriff
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former member of a New Jersey church group testified on Thursday that a deli worker accused of kidnapping and murdering a New York City boy in 1979 confessed the crimes to him during a religious retreat that year.
Pedro Hernandez is accused of the kidnapping and murder of 6-year-old Etan Patz, who vanished on May 25, 1979 while walking to a school bus stop in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood. It was his first day of going to school by himself.
His body was never found, but in 2001 he was declared legally dead.
The case ignited a national movement to find missing children, and Patz was one of the first missing children whose picture appeared on a milk carton.
Hernandez, 54, was arrested in 2012 after police got a tip that he had confessed at a church group.
He then confessed to police that he lured Patz to the basement of a Soho deli where he worked, strangled him and dumped him in an alley. His defense attorneys say the confession was coerced and he is mentally ill and suffers hallucinations.
Testifying at Hernandez' trial in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, Ramon Rodriguez, 75, said Hernandez admitted to the kidnapping and murder on a 1979 religious retreat in New Jersey.
Hernandez said he was working at a grocery store in New York City and told Rodriguez "I took him to the basement, and then I took a stick and I shove him a lot of times," he testified.
He said Hernandez admitted sexually abusing the boy.
Hernandez' defense disputed Rodriguez' credibility, saying he had previously said he had heard no such confession and focusing on inconsistencies in his story.
Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said Rodriguez earlier had made statements that Hernandez had not admitted to sexual abuse and that Rodriguez had changed his account more than once.
Rodriguez, a retiree who lives in Puerto Rico, said he belonged to a charismatic church group that was attended by Hernandez and his brother-in-law, Jose Lopez.
Lopez tipped off police in 2012, saying he had heard about an alleged confession, although he recalled it may have been in the 1980s.
Rodriguez said he never reported what he had heard to police.
Two other members of the church group were expected to testify when the trial resumes on Friday.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Sandra Maler)