Catholic priest denies guilt from witness stand during his federal sex-trafficking trial

Mansfield News Journal [Mansfield, OH]

May 10, 2023

By Zach Tuggle

Closing arguments are expected to begin 9 a.m. Thursday

A man accused of committing sex crimes while serving as a Roman Catholic priest in Mansfield and Fremont denied guilt from the witness stand Wednesday during his federal sex-trafficking trial.

The Rev. Michael Jude Zacharias, 56, faces five counts of sex trafficking, two of which involve victims who were minors. The allegations span 15 years from July 2005 to August 2020.

Closing arguments in the case are expected to begin 9 a.m. Thursday, according to Claudia Vercellotti, leader of the Toledo chapter of Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

The victim advocate was in the U.S. District Court/Northern District of Ohio in Toledo on Wednesday to watch as Zacharias was sworn in to answer questions about his conduct.

Zacharias was placed on administrative leave in 2020 by Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas, the Fremont News-Messenger reported last year. He is banned from public ministry but remains an ordained priest.

‘He was trying to live a moral life’

Vercellotti said the priest admitted in court to having sexual relations with several men, but that Zacharias maintained the behavior never happened with anyone under the age of 18.

“He categorically denied wrongdoing when they were kids,” Vercellotti said.

Zacharias told jurors that his activity increased over the years and that it started by having conversations and by sending sexual text messages, known as “sexting.”

“He justified it by saying he was trying to live a moral life,” Vercellotti said. “He said he was sexting to avoid doing something physical.”

Zacharias said on the witness stand that he was 43 when he had his first physical sexual encounter.

One man, the priest said, came to him for counseling because of his interest in homosexual activity, a conversation which led to the two performing homosexual activities together.

Another man, Zacharias told jurors, exposed himself while the two were outside smoking cigarettes.

“He said the victim said, ‘You know you want it,'” Vercellotti said. “He said the victim was pursuing him for money.”

‘He had no idea that any of them had drug habits’

A nine-page affidavit filed in federal court accused Zacharias of “grooming” victims to use their drug addiction as a way to perform sexual acts on them.

Zacharias told the court Wednesday that he gave money to the men several times, not as payment for sex, but because they had asked him for financial assistance.

“He said he didn’t care about money,” Vercellotti said. “He said, ‘if I have it, then I will give it freely; if I can help someone, I will.'”

The priest claimed he never knew the money would be used to buy illegal drugs.

“He said he had no idea that any of them had drug habits or were trying to fuel a drug habit,” Vercellotti said. “He denied that he had any knowledge that any of them were addicted to anything.”

‘As a priest, he just needed an outlet’

In October 2020, Zacharias was taken into custody without incident at his home in Findlay, where he was assigned to St. Michael the Archangel Parish, by members of the Northwest Ohio Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force.

The News-Messenger reported in 2020 that an FBI affidavit alleged that investigators had collected video evidence of the priest involved in sex with an adult male and another video in which the priest confessed that he wanted to have sex with a sixth-grade boy.

“He explained away his confessional tape,” Vercellotti said. “He said that was just a fantasy and that as a priest, he just needed an outlet.”

Zacharias began his career as a pastoral intern at St. Catherine Parish in Columbus from 1999-2000 before becoming an associate pastor at Mansfield’s St. Peter Parish from July 1, 2002 to July 2, 2007.

He was named pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Van Wert from July 2, 2007 to July 1, 2011, then appointed pastor of Fremont’s St. Joseph and St. Ann parishes from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2017.

He was reassigned in 2017 to St. Michael The Archangel in Findlay, where he served until the federal charges were filed. The bishop placed him on administrative leave Aug. 18, 2020.

Zacharias remains an ordained priest but cannot exercise public priestly ministry, administer any of the sacraments, wear clerical attire or present himself to the public as a priest.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo said in a news release when the trial started that the church would take no further action until the case is resolved.

“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,” said Kelly Donaghy, diocesan spokesperson.

“The Diocese of Toledo has and will continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement throughout this process. We invite all to pray for those affected by this case and that truth and justice will be served,” the statement said.


Twitter: @zachtuggle