Toledo Blade [Toledo OH]
May 4, 2023
By David Patch
The Rev. Michael Zacharias was on the phone with a boy he now stands trial for allegedly molesting for more than a decade — both as a juvenile and as an adult — when he overheard the boy’s girlfriend accurately assess the situation.
“Why does he call all the time? Is he trying to get into your pants?” the alleged victim recalled the girlfriend asking him during the phone call.
“I thought it was absurd,” the now 34-year-old man, whose name The Blade is withholding because it is a sexual assault case, said Wednesday on the witness stand in U.S. District Court in Toledo during the first day of trial testimony. But when he walked away to take the rest of the call in private, Father Zacharias “proceeds to tell me she’s right,” he testified, although at that moment, he thought it was a joke.
From that point on, the now-suspended priest always steered their conversations back toward the outcome he wanted, and “eventually I gave in to letting him touch me outside of my pants,” the alleged victim said.
That, according to the man’s testimony, was followed by the priest masturbating in his presence, and then numerous occasions of the priest performing oral sex on him that were interrupted only by the alleged victim’s two-year prison sentence for a burglary and then by the priest’s August, 2020 arrest by the FBI.
Father Zacharias, who met the alleged victim and his two younger brothers as a seminarian at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Toledo during the 1999- 2000 school year, is charged with one count of sex trafficking of a minor, two counts of sex trafficking of a minor by force, fraud, or coercion, and seven counts of sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion.
Both the alleged victim and his mother, who also took the stand Wednesday and whose name The Blade also is withholding because of the familial relationship, testified that while the victim was in prison, Father Zacharias similarly preyed on the youngest of the three brothers, who like his elder siblings had recurring problems with drug addiction they blamed on their unstable home lives.
The indictment named a total of four victims by their initials. U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary said out of the courtroom that testimony related to their situations is anticipated later in the trial, which he expected to continue into next week.
The assaults are alleged to have occurred in the rectories or other pastoral homes at St. Peter Parish in Mansfield, Ohio; St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Van Wert, Ohio, St. Joseph Parish in Fremont, and St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Findlay. Father Zacharias was pastor of the Findlay church when he was arrested.
Bishop Daniel Thomas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo placed Father Zacharias on administrative leave upon his arrest, and the diocese “has and will continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement throughout this process,” it said in a statement issued Tuesday. “Only after a resolution of the federal criminal charges against Zacharias has been reached, would the diocese then be able to pursue a canonical (church law) process regarding the matter.”
A federal statement at the time of Father Zacharias’ indictment accused the priest specifically of leveraging his victims’ drug addictions to coercing them into sex acts in exchange for money.
Money, drug addiction
The alleged victim described Wednesday afternoon just that scenario, stating that the priest paid him as much as $1,500 on several occasions. And even after he emerged from prison in 2012 clean of drugs, he said he resumed visiting with Father Zacharias because he thought his family needed the money the priest was paying him, he was having a hard time finding work as a convicted felon. He also believed submitting himself to the priest would protect others from becoming similarly involved.
The man didn’t stay clean for long, noting that he was soon given a Percocet prescription following surgical removal of a cyst from his neck that led to his experiencing of new withdrawal symptoms when that prescription ran out.
He testified that he redeveloped a drug addiction that ran him $600 per day, which he sustained by becoming a dealer. Father Zacharias knew about this for their conversations and suggested that other drug addicts who owed the man money could be recruited as new sexual providers to pay off their drug debts, he told the court.
The alleged victim said Father Zacharias also raised the idea of performing oral sex on him in front of the middle brother and asked for that brother’s phone number. That, he said, was “disgusting” and while he told the priest he would look into it, he did not tell that brother — who has since died — what was going on.
“I was always confused why I was never enough, why he was always escalating to other people,” the man said.
He also said, however, that he was unaware of anyone else having been involved until he was alerted to the priest’s imminent arrest.
His mother said she learned what had been happening when her eldest called her and said “I needed to be prepared — there was going to be some stuff on the news” about “Father Z” being arrested.
“He told me he never wanted me to know, but stuff was going to come out,” she testified.
The mother told the court that she had divorced her two older sons’ father when they were toddlers because he was verbally and physically abusive, while the father of her youngest was never part of his son’s life. A registered nurse, she worked extensive overtime and private-duty jobs to support her household, but that usually meant the boys had to get themselves to school in the mornings, and all of them developed truancy problems in later years once they began using drugs.
Then-Mr. Zacharias, the mother said, came over to the house often during his year as a seminarian at St. Catherine’s to converse with her and the boys — especially the eldest, with whom he went out for neighborhood walks while chatting.
After his ordination and assignment as associate pastor at St. Peter’s, the mother said she and her eldest paid him a visit in Mansfield during a 2003 trip when they also picked up a puppy they had bought from someone in a rural area nearby. Thereafter, she said, the eldest repeatedly took a vehicle of hers without her permission to drive to Mansfield, Ohio to see Father Zacharias, even though he had no driver’s license.
But while she called Toledo police regarding her son’s illegal use of the vehicle, she told the court she held no suspicion of any untoward activity on the priest’s part.
“He was close. That [Father Zacharias] was still his friend, his mentor, someone he could talk to, confide in,” she testified. “I didn’t learn until later that Father Z was giving [him] money.”
Educator takes stand
Under cross-examination from defense lawyer Mark Geudtner, the mother acknowledged that her sons sometimes lied to her, and cash, jewelry, and other items often went missing. The youngest, she said, often pawned those items at a local shop she came to visit often to recover her belongings, including a computer. But when she called the police, the officers typically gave a talking-to and nothing more.
In between the two relatives, the jury heard much briefer testimony from Andrea Puhl, now the principal at St. Aloysius Catholic School in Bowling Green but who during Mr. Zacharias’ seminary assignment was a sixth- grade teacher at St. Catherine’s under her maiden name of Andrea Faust.
“He got to know the kids, the teachers, the school, and everyone enjoyed having him around,” she recalled on the stand while later noting, “There were several families that he was close to” and a common trait of those families was that they all had sons. The alleged victim’s testimony directed by prosecutors was unfinished as trial proceedings closed Wednesday. It is scheduled to resume Thursday morning, to be followed by the defense’s opportunity to cross-examine him.