Pope Francis laicizes Toledo priest after life sentence for sexual abuse of minors

Catholic News Agency - EWTN [Denver CO]

March 19, 2024

By Daniel Payne

Pope Francis has laicized an Ohio priest after the clergyman received a life sentence in prison for the sexual abuse of minors, the Diocese of Toledo said this week. 

Michael Zacharias, 57, was convicted on five counts of sex trafficking by a federal jury in the Northern District of Ohio last May. His crimes, committed between 1999 and 2020, involved three victims, two of whom were minors when Zacharias began abusing them.

Upon his conviction, he faced a minimum of 15 years in prison. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said in November that the then-priest received a life sentence for the crimes. 

In a press release on Monday, the Diocese of Toledo said that following Zacharias’ convection, diocesan officials “had transmitted the case to the Holy See along with the request to the Holy Father to impose the penalty of direct dismissal from the clerical state.”

“The diocese was recently informed that the Holy Father has imposed upon Zacharias the perpetual penalty of direct dismissal from the clerical state (returning him to the lay state), for the sexual abuse of minors and other reprehensible immoral behavior,” the statement said. 

Laicization is the term for when a priest has been dismissed from the clerical state. An individual who is confirmed as a priest will always remain one, but laicization takes away his ability to licitly execute the functions of the priesthood, except in the extreme situation of encountering someone who is in immediate danger of death.

Bishop Daniel E. Thomas said in the statement that “with the imposition of this penalty, it is my hope and prayer that healing for victims may continue and justice be restored, as we remain vigilant in confronting evil.”

“The Holy Father alone has the authority to impose this penalty of direct dismissal from the clerical state when the case warrants such an action,” the diocese noted. 

Zacharias’ trial revealed that he met his abuse victims “through his affiliation with a Catholic school,” according to the Department of Justice. 

The ex-priest “used his affiliation and position of authority to groom the boys and grow close with their families,” the DOJ said, “before ultimately coercing the victims into engaging in commercial sex acts and manipulating the opioid addictions they developed.”

Daniel Payne is a senior editor at Catholic News Agency. He previously worked at the College Fix and Just the News. He lives in Virginia with his family.