Ohio priest convicted of sex trafficking minors

WCCO [Minneapolis MN]

May 13, 2023

By Lauren Barry

A federal jury has convicted an Ohio Catholic priest accused of grooming young boys of five counts of sex trafficking, the U.S. Department of Justice said Friday.

According to the department, evidence presented to jury demonstrated how that Michael J. Zacharias first met the victims when they were young boys, and he was a Seminarian at St. Catherine’s Catholic Parish school in Toledo, Ohio, and began grooming them for commercial sex acts.

“The charges related to three victims, two of whom Zacharias trafficked when they were minors and as adults,” said the DOJ. “The evidence presented to the jury detailed how Zacharias paid the victims to engage in sex acts with him using the victims’ fear of serious harm to compel their compliance.”

In 2002, a report in the Boston Globe opened a floodgate of revelations about sex abuse cases in the Catholic church. By 2019, a Pew Research Center survey found that “about eight-in-ten U.S. adults say the recent reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by Catholic priests and bishops reflect ‘ongoing problems that are still happening’ in the church.”

In Zacharias’ case, evidence cited by the DOJ found that he used “his position as a priest and teacher to ingratiate himself with the boys and their families as a trusted friend, mentor and spiritual counselor,” to develop his grooming scheme. He also appeared to facilitate his victims’ drug addictions.

“The defendant overcame the victims’ resistance to his eventual commercial sex overtures by gradually sexualizing conversations and conduct with them,” the DOJ said. “At the same time, the victims were developing serious opiate addictions, using pain medication and, later, heroin. Zacharias waited to propose commercial sex until he knew the victims were so heavily involved in drug abuse that it was impacting their daily lives, physical and mental well-being and ability to maintain a stable school or work life.”

Zacharias’ victims also provided testimony about how they submitted to the priest’s commercial sex requests because they feared losing him as a “father figure and friend,” as well as “losing their connection to the Church and God,” and painful opiate withdrawal.

“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,” said Special Agent in Charge Gregory Nelsen of the FBI Cleveland Field Office. “The FBI is committed to finding and investigating child predators, so no other people become victim to deceitful and abhorrent behavior.”

Per the DOJ, Zacharias would provide his victims with money to purchase opiates. One victim also explained that he feared Zacharias would sexually abuse his minor brother and others.

“This defendant betrayed the victims in the most inhumane way,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “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 Justice Department will vigorously prosecute human trafficking crimes to hold offenders like Michael Zacharias accountable and bring justice to their victims.”

As of Friday, sentencing for Zacharias had not been scheduled. He faces a 15-year mandatory minimum and lifetime maximum sentence.

“Restitution in this case is mandatory under the law,” said the DOJ.