Ohio Catholic priest guilty of sex trafficking boys; allegations spanned 15 years

 Ohio - A Roman Catholic priest on Friday was found guilty of sex crimes and the grooming of three victims, including two whom prosecutors said he began trafficking when they were young boys.

Rev. Michael Jude Zacharias, 56, was convicted by a jury of one count of sexual trafficking of a minor, two counts of sexual trafficking of a minor by force, fraud, or coercion, and two counts of sexual trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion. The allegations spanned 15 years, from July 2005 to August 2020.

“This defendant betrayed the victims in the most inhumane way,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement. “He robbed them of their childhood, their dignity and their faith."

Priest groomed, trafficked victims

Prosecutors said during Zacharias' trial, which began May 2 in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Ohio in Toledo, that he "paid the victims to engage in sex acts with him using the victims’ fear of serious harm to compel their compliance."

Zacharias met the victims while they were boys St. Catherine’s Catholic Parish school in Toledo and abused his position as a teacher and priest to groom them into adulthood, prosecutors said.

Father Mike Zacharias conducts Mass at Mansfield's St. Peter's Catholic Church in 2004.

He was accused of taking advantage of the victims' growing dependence on drugs, including pain medications and heroin, to gradually sexualize his conversations and actions with them.

"The victims’ testimony explained how, in varying degrees, 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 that could be alleviated with the money provided by Zacharias to purchase drugs," a statement from the Department of Justice reads

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Zacharias took the witness stand on Wednesday and admitted to having had sexual relations with several men but maintained that the sex never involved anyone younger than 18.

Zacharias' fate in the church to be decided

Zacharias remains an ordained priest but cannot exercise public priestly ministry, administer any of the sacraments, wear clerical attire or present himself to the public as a priest.

He faces between 15 years and life in prison with mandatory restitution to victims, the DOJ said. Sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo said Friday that with the conclusion of the federal case, "the diocese is now free to address this matter according to Canon (church) law."

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Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas, who placed Zacharias on administrative leave in August 2020, said in a statement issued shortly after Friday's verdict the Catholic Church cannot tolerate sexual abuse and misconduct.

“Considering all that victims have suffered, all that the Church has endured due to the acts of her own members, all that we have done to protect children, to ensure a safe environment and to guard the integrity of the priesthood, still, sometimes, evil has its way," Thomas said. "Our society and Church together must bring evil into the light, wherever it is found.”

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