Ohio Catholic priest convicted of sex trafficking, abusing churchgoing minors into adulthood

WHIO-TV [Dayton OH]

May 14, 2023

A Catholic priest in Ohio was convicted Friday on five counts of sex trafficking charges related to three victims, two of whom were minors when first sexually abused.

Michael Zacharias, 53, of Findlay, was charged with coercion and enticement, sex trafficking of a minor, and sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion, News Center 7 previously reported.

Zacharias was arrested without incident at his home in Findlay by members of the Northwest Ohio Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force. Zacharias, the pastor at St. Michael the Archangel parish in Findlay, was then placed on administrative leave due to his arrest.

A trial went underway that presented evidence of Zacharias paying victims to engage in sex acts with him, using the victims’ fear of serious harm to compel their compliance. The evidence showed Zacharias first meeting his victims when they were young boys, and he was a Seminarian at St. Catherine’s Catholic Parish school in Toledo, Ohio.

Zacharias then began to groom the boys for commercial sex acts, using his position as a priest and teacher to ingratiate himself with the boys and their families as a trusted friend, mentor and spiritual counselor, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said. The grooming process involved a gradual increase in more sexualizing conversations.

When the victims developed “serious” opiate addictions, using pain medication and later, heroin, Zacharias proposed a trade of commercial sex for money that could be used to purchase more narcotics, the spokesperson continued. The victims’ heavy involvement with drugs began to impact their daily lives, physical and mental well-being, and ability to maintain a stable school or work life.

The victims testified that they submitted to Zacharias’ commercial sex solicitations because they feared the psychological harm of losing Zacharias as a father figure and friend, losing their connection to the Church and God, and suffering the painful symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

“This defendant betrayed the victims in the most inhumane way,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said. “He robbed them of their childhood, their dignity, and their faith. He inflicted cruel psychological harm, preying on their fears and forcing them to choose between submitting to commercial sex acts, or incurring the pain of losing a father figure or counselor, suffering withdrawal sickness, and risking sexual abuse of a loved one.”

“The defendant not only abused his victims, but also betrayed the trust placed in him by the congregation and those who dutifully serve parishes across the country,” Special Agent in Charge Gregory Nelsen of the FBI Cleveland Field Office said.

Zacharias’s sentencing was not scheduled yet.

Zacharias faces a fifteen-year mandatory minimum and lifetime maximum sentence. Restitution in this case was mandatory under the law.