Sex crimes ignored in Ohio

The Courier [Findlay, OH]

November 22, 2023

By Matt Westerhold

An advocacy group decried Ohio lawmakers and the state’s attorney general after a priest who formerly served in Findlay was sentenced to life in federal court Friday for sexually abusing young boys and adults.

Father Michael J. Zacharias wasn’t brought to justice in state court because the state isn’t serious about protecting families, Claudia Vercellotti and David Clohessy wrote in a recent op-ed.

“Ohio legislators continue to cave to lobbyists for the bishops and the insurance industry by refusing to eliminate or extend Ohio’s archaic, predator-friendly statute of limitations,” the two leaders with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, wrote.


Zacharias, at the time the pastor of St. Michael’s parish in Findlay, was arrested by the FBI in 2020 on multiple charges of sex crimes, including human trafficking. He allegedly “manipulated and coerced drug-addicted boys and men into sex” and made a “confession video” in which he performed oral sex on a then-adult victim, according to Vercellotti and Clohessy’s op-ed.

The Catholic Church has spent the last two decades downplaying sexual abuse allegations against priests, leaders of the survivors network wrote.

“Their intent is clear: promote complacency, mollify the flock and pretend these crimes are all in the past. But Fr. Zacharias’ crime spree started when he was a seminary student studying to become a priest. It continued through his ordination as a Catholic deacon and then a Catholic priest, and worse still, after the Toledo Catholic Diocese revamped its own policies on childhood sexual abuse,” they wrote in the op-ed.

Zacharias was ordained a priest in 2002, and other priests who’ve been credibly accused also are more recent to the seminary and becoming priests, they said.

“The Catholic Church hierarchy’s claim (that sexual abuse is in the past) is at best premature and at worst intentionally misleading,” Vercellotti said.

Many states have lifted or extended the statute of limitations in order to give victims time to seek justice, according to Vercellotti, “But, tragically, Ohio continues to protect those who commit and conceal horrific crimes against kids, instead of protecting the kids themselves.”

Not his job

Attorney General Dave Yost contends that the survivor network’s beef is with lawmakers, not him. It’s up to the state legislature to change the statute of limitations, he said previously. It’s not his job.

But Yost, who in 2020 filed falsification charges against a woman who reported being raped, already has the tools he needs to investigate what the survivors network calls the Catholic Church’s ongoing criminal coverup of sexual abuse in the church hierarchy.

Yost refused multiple requests from the survivors network to open a statewide investigation, claiming he’s limited in what he can do.

Leaders of the survivors network contend state law already grants the attorney general’s office the power to investigate.

Other attorneys general in other states have laid the groundwork already, and their reports revealed hundreds of priests credibly accused. The investigations in other states also show a definitive pattern, Vercellotti said, in how the church would transfer priests to different parishes and protect them from exposure and prosecution.

A very long time

Zacharias, 56, was sentenced in U.S. District Court, in Toledo, by Judge Jack Zouhary to two life prison terms on Friday for two convictions of sex trafficking of minors. He also received 10 years in prison on each of three convictions for sex trafficking involving adults.

He was found guilty in May in a jury trial of two counts that he used force, fraud and coercion to get a minor to engage in paid sex acts; and three counts of using force, fraud and coercion to get an adult to engage in paid sex acts. A total of three victims were involved.

“Is it possible there are other victims? His crimes that are known spanned over two decades. What is Bishop (Daniel) Thomas doing to actively reach out to every parishioner, alumni and the communities at large where this now convicted sex offender worked and lived?” Vercellotti said.

Thomas issued a statement Friday.

“Today’s sentencing of Michael Zacharias in federal court marks another step towards justice for all of those harmed by his actions,” he wrote in the news release.


On Monday, Thomas issued another statement responding to the op-ed, refuting the assertions made by Vercellotti and Clohessy.

“Tragically, there are individuals and organizations who continue to refuse to accept all that the Catholic Church has done, is doing, and will continue to do to confront the sinfulness of her own and to assist those harmed by her members,” Thomas wrote.

The bishop accused Vercellotti and Clohessy of deliberately providing “false and misleading information.

“Some deceptively and erroneously continue to refute the reality that the Church has done more than any other profession or organization in directly confronting the issue of the abuse of minors, in recognizing her failures in the past, in realizing that apologies must always give way to resolute action, and in strengthening transparency, education and proactive reporting in her ongoing commitment to protecting youth and vulnerable persons and ensuring the dignity of the priesthood,” he wrote.

Here is the balance of Thomas’ statement:

“We post the names and assignments of clergy who have been credibly accused ( so that victims have a resource to identify their abuser. We instruct our parishioners and staff to recognize signs of abuse and to report it immediately to civil authorities if it is suspected. We immediately contact civil authorities if abuse is reported to us, and conduct a rigorous process documented in our policy.

“We provide care to victims who courageously come forward, addressing forthrightly any and all accusations. We strive consistently to combat the evil which our Church and society together must bring to light wherever it is found.

“The Church, no matter the expressed opinions of her detractors, will not be deterred from working with civil authorities, speaking openly about evil, doing what is right and just, and acting responsibly and forthrightly in addressing abuse, caring for victims, and shining a light to dispel the darkness. We will not hide from the reality of grave sin nor hesitate to call it what it is: reprehensible, morally deplorable, and manifestly contrary to the dignity due to each human person and the dignity of the priesthood.”

Network’s response

“Let’s talk about what the church does,” Vercellotti said, responding to Thomas’ criticism. “They hire gatekeepers in the form of their outreach person. They hire expensive legal counsel so they can do the bare minimum. They put together these ‘committees’ to ‘decide’ the credibility of victims whose case is presented before them by another investigator they also hire.”

It’s all done inside the confines of the church.

“What organization with these kinds of problems can police themselves?” she asked.

Here is the balance of Vercellotti’s response:

“The Toledo Catholic Diocese was instrumental in blocking legislation (along with the other dioceses around the state) that would have taken most of these problems out of their hands and put them squarely where they belong in criminal and civil court by expanding the statute of limitations.

“Bishop Daniel Thomas and his predecessors here in the Toledo Catholic Diocese, follow the company line of Bishops and Cardinals all over the country and around the world in lie, deny and standby as it relates to these horrific crimes committed by their staff and volunteers against our most vulnerable: kids.

“Are they any better than the likes of big opioid pharmaceuticals or big tobacco conglomerates?

“Arguably, they are worse. The intent of the mega pill mills and tobacco companies are clear from the onset: get people hooked on their products that drive sales.

“What makes the likes of Bishop Thomas and his brethren so insidious on this point is that the have all the resources at their fingertips and the call of the Gospel to do the right thing — and they don’t — but they tell the faith-filled they do. It creates this false dichotomy. It’s dangerous and it costs lives in worst case scenarios. It’s criminal. It’s immoral and worst still: they know it.

“The church wants to call this ‘her’ transgressions of the past … didn’t we just cite four cases that went to court since 2002? Didn’t Fr. Zacharias’ crimes span two decades? But if not for the FBI, wouldn’t Fr. Zacharias’ crimes still be continuing? Weren’t they only discovered in an unrelated FBI sting?

“Let’s be clear: they were not discovered by staff or parishioners who were trained to be vigilant.

“Didn’t the police tip off the church days before Fr. Zacharias arrest and didn’t Fr. Zacharias start to destroy evidence?

“The fact is the Toledo Catholic Diocese pioneered a committee and new policies in 1994, opened an office to receive these crimes in 1995.

“Question: how many times did the Toledo Catholic Diocese go to the police and prosecutors, warn parishioners, reach out to alumni between 1994-2001 during the time their offices got these reports from victims?

“In 2002, the Toledo Catholic Diocese — the same year Fr. Zacharias was being ordained — pledged alongside U.S. bishops openness, honesty and transparency all the while going on the record in newspapers locally alleging not one case in 20 years — knowing it was a lie and at a minimum intentionally misleading.

“Didn’t we name four cases — three in federal court alone that occurred during this era of renewed reform?

“Did you notice, not once did Bishop Thomas’ response (probably written by his PR person jointly with his legal counsel) ever, even once call this what it is? Crimes? Not once did he use the word ‘crimes’ or ‘criminal’ acts.

“Worse still — did the Toledo Catholic Diocese address anytime in the last three years what they knew about Fr. Hohenbrink who wasn’t ‘just a priest’ he’s held several positions of leadership including vocations director and pastor/president of St Catherine’s Parish and School — did Bishop Thomas yet acknowledge that an 8th-grade victim of then seminarian Zacharias molested this child, who reported it shortly thereafter to him?

“What does he have to say about the sworn and unrefuted testimony of the victim who stated that he was told it was ‘all in his head’ — what does he say about that?

“Why is the part about Fr. Hohenbrink and this being reported timely so relevant? Because had Fr. Hohenbrink, a seasoned priest reported it to the police, called the kid’s parents, maybe Fr. Zacharias’ crime spree wouldn’t have lasted two decades or more? Maybe the lives of his victims could have been spared the trajectories that Fr. Zacharias’s crimes and Fr. Hohenbrink by rebuking the victim, set in motion. Is that misleading? Is that not untrue?

“And, please don’t let them tell you they didn’t know … they sent representatives to the trial daily and have read it in the transcripts, this I know for fact.

“Did you notice the Bishop can’t say what we said that was untrue? Why is that? Because we didn’t.

“Did you notice the Bishop can’t say what we said that is misleading? Why is that? Because we haven’t.

“Bishop Thomas is quick to point out his policies and committees and ‘care’ that the Church has provided. Would it surprise you that the last victim I spoke with went through 8 months of their ‘committee’ process before it was declared believable and credible? That victim to date, has been offered no justice. As for the Toledo Catholic Diocese, they quietly acknowledged it is credible in the pages of their website and may have sent out a small press release as to the same (I can’t recall the latter). But, that flash in the pan puts the onus upon victims to go ‘searching’ to see if their predator has been outed. Do you see the problem with that?

“The Toledo Catholic Diocese once offered to pay counseling for victims, then they wanted their medical records, then they refused to pay if they didn’t find efficacy in the treatment modalities being used. Once victim still holds a 10k bill that was promised to be covered and then wasn’t by the Toledo Catholic Diocese.

“Policies and committees, practices and training aren’t worth the paper they are written upon if you don’t vigorously and aggressively follow through are they?

“The fact remains Fr. Zacharias’ career soared simultaneously with his crime spree.

“The postings of names and assignments are piecemeal and parcel by the Toledo catholic diocese, they break them down into these crazy categories that mean nothing to the victims that search them to feel validated or the concerned parent that is looking to keep their kids safe. Many are posted after the cleric is dead. The fact remains that most names have been posted after the Diocese is forced to concede the facts and then only the bare minimum. That’s the unacceptable part.


“Then, when offered the right to respond, the Bishop leads by calling us ‘detractors,’ as if his actions aren’t the single road block and wall between openness, honesty and transparency and healing. Truth? There would be no need for groups like ours but not for the ongoing deceit, intentional duplicity and cover-up by the likes of Bishop Thomas.

“If you want to know what is important to Bishop Thomas you need no further than to look at his fundraising efforts, even when the economy is in a downturn and families are struggling. He uses every available outlet and resource to raise those dollars. You need no further than to look at his embarrassing videos on YouTube telling Ohioans how to vote, as if he forgets he’s tax exempt and clearly using his power and influence to sway voters despite how misleading and untrue the statements he makes may be.

“So, Bishop Thomas with all of his power, money and influence can continue to try to target us as survivors for protecting kids and exposing his clerics and the Church for their roles in the coverups. We are used to it. But, he needs to do some soul searching and ask himself, how can you change what you will not fully acknowledge? WWJD?”