Trial of former St. Helen's seminarian now scheduled for May
By Andrew Cass
January 03, 2021
The trial of a Strongsville priest with Geauga County ties is now scheduled for late May, federal court records show.
The priest, Robert McWilliams, 40, is facing charges of two counts of sex trafficking of a minor, three counts of sexual exploitation of children, one count of transportation of child pornography, one count of receipt and distribution of visual depictions of real minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct and one count of possession of child pornography.
McWilliams is a former seminarian at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Newbury Township.
A trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio was previously scheduled for Feb. 18, but in December defense attorney Robert A. Dixon asked for the case to be continued, citing ongoing challenges stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Dixon’s motion was unopposed by federal prosecutors. Northern District of Ohio Judge Sara Lioi set a new jury trial date of May 24. The new deadline for a plea deal in the case is set for April 9, court records show.
McWilliams was arrested Dec. 5, 2019, at St. Joseph in Strongsville after the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force raided his office and living space. He was facing criminal charges in Cuyahoga and Geauga counties, but prosecutors in both ultimately dropped their cases after a federal complaint was filed Feb. 21 in the The Northern District of Ohio U.S. Court.
Federal prosecutors allege that from 2017-2019, McWilliams engaged in “sexually explicit conduct involving minors. McWilliams allegedly pretended to be a woman on social media applications, which he used to make contact with minor male victims. It’s alleged that some of McWilliams’ victims were young boys he knew because he served as a priest in parishes with which these children and their families were affiliated.
McWilliams is accused of posing as a woman to entice the minor male victims to send him sexually explicit photographs and videos, sometimes threatening to expose embarrassing information.
McWilliams is alleged to have at times threatened to send those photos to family and friends if the minor victim did not send additional photos and videos. McWilliams is also alleged to have followed through on this threat by sending the mothers sexually explicit photographs he received from minor male victims
He is also accused of using a social networking website to make contact with a minor male victim for the “purpose of engaging in commercial sex." McWilliams allegedly met the victim on multiple occasions and, in exchange for sex, paid the victim for each act.
McWilliams was also allegedly in possession of, received or distributed approximately 1,700 images and videos of child pornography and approximately 150 files of child pornography in a Dropbox cloud storage account.
In his Dec. 10 motion, Dixon outlined several ways the COVID-19 pandemic has made preparing for trial difficult. Among other things, Dixon said he there has been “no meaningful opportunity to converse” with McWilliams, who is currently incarcerated at the Community Corrections Association in Youngstown.
“For months there was no in-person visitation whatsoever,” Dixon wrote. “More recently attorneys were permitted to visit clients through glass while speaking over a phone.”
Dixon stated in the motion he visited McWilliams several weeks ago but “found that an effective conference could not be held under such circumstances.”
“Counsel was forced to show the client documents by holding them up to the window with one hand while talking on the phone,” Dixon wrote. “Additionally, no electronics are permitted so counsel was completely unable to view any digital evidence with the client.”
Dixon argued that he cannot render effective assistance under the present conditions given the nature of this case and the restrictions on client visitation.
“As the court is aware, dissemination of discovery materials in this case is restricted by an agreed Protective Order,” Dixon wrote. “Thus, due to the lack of security, discovery materials cannot be copied and provided to the defendant and must necessarily be reviewed only in person.”
The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland placed McWilliams on administrative leave following his arrest. Records from the diocese show McWilliams was ordained in May 2017.