Man sues Catholic Diocese of Cleveland over rape allegations against former priest McWilliams

The Plain Dealer - [Cleveland OH]

March 29, 2022

By John Caniglia

A 19-year-old man has sued the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland over allegations that it failed to protect him from a former priest who was sentenced to prison for exploiting children.

The man filed the lawsuit in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court earlier this month, alleging that Robert McWilliams raped and sexually molested him. The accuser was about 15 years old at the time of the incidents.

McWilliams was serving a life sentence for sexually exploiting boys when he died by suicide in February. He was 41.

The lawsuit, filed by Lebanon attorney Konrad Kircher, says the diocese had obtained information about McWilliams during his years as a seminarian.

The suit says it “revealed that McWilliams was an immature, emotionally unstable individual, who, in the context of the history of clergy sexual abuse of children, presented a threat of harm to children.”

The suit alleges that McWilliams, while a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Pearl Road in Strongsville, “perpetrated his crimes” against the youth by using the diocese’s internet service, networks and devices. The lawsuit identifies the victim as John Doe.

The church and the Rev. Edward Malesic, the bishop of the diocese, are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

In a statement, the diocese said it is reviewing the lawsuit and cannot comment on it.

“The diocese continues to offer prayers for all those impacted by the reprehensible crimes of Robert McWilliams,” the statement says. “The diocese has been a leader in the protection of children for the past two decades and remains committed to creating safe environments for children in the parishes and schools throughout the diocese.”

The lawsuit does not detail how the man and McWilliams met. But federal court filings show he found McWilliams through social media. The man knew McWilliams as “Mike.”

McWilliams paid $200 for three sex acts, according to federal court records. One of the encounters took place at a hotel in Medina in 2019. McWilliams had been at St. Joseph at the time. The allegation made up the first count of McWilliams’ federal indictment, which accused him of sex trafficking of a minor.

McWilliams admitted to the charge and seven others last July. U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi sentenced him in November.

“He caused a lot of damage that I’m trying to overcome,” the man said in an interview. “I feel that I always have to be in control now, so that something like this never happens again.”

He said he is struggling to deal with anxiety issues that he says stem from McWilliams.

“He was very intrusive,” the man said. “He was always trying to meet with me. He was always trying to get me to send him photos.”

McWilliams was ordained in 2017 and began serving at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Strongsville. Prior to that, he had been a seminarian at St. Helen Catholic Church in Newbury Township in Geauga County, where he became active in a teen program.

Authorities began investigating him in October 2019, when two families from St. Helen filed a report detailing how their sons were extorted online for sexually explicit images of themselves.

The boys believed they were sending the photos to a girl. Instead, it was McWilliams using a phony account to lure the youths into sending the pictures.

At the hearing, the mother of some of the youths called McWilliams “evil incarnate.”

Authorities seized more than 128,000 images of child pornography from McWilliams, prosecutors said.

McWilliams was serving his sentence in a federal prison in White Deer, Pennsylvania, when he died by suicide. Weeks after McWilliam’s sentencing, Pope Francis released him from the priesthood because of his crimes.