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Federal jury convicts Ohio priest of sex-trafficking charges

The abuse allegations against Father Michael Zacharias, now 56, spanned 15 years, from July 2005 to August 2020
Rosary Cathedral at Toledo, United States

Rosary Cathedral at Toledo, United States. (Photo Rosary Cathedral Parish)

Published: May 16, 2023 05:11 AM GMT
Updated: May 16, 2023 05:13 AM GMT

A federal jury on May 12 convicted a Toledo diocesan priest of five charges of sex trafficking in his abuse of three male victims that began when he was a seminarian and they were minors at St. Catherine of Siena Parish School in Toledo and which continued into the victims' adulthood.

Father Michael Zacharias, now 56, was found guilty 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. He is now in Lucas County jail awaiting sentencing.

The abuse allegations spanned 15 years, from July 2005 to August 2020, when he was arrested by members of the Northwest Ohio Child Exploitation and Trafficking Task Force after he celebrated morning Mass that Aug. 18 at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Findlay, where he was pastor. The Toledo Diocese immediately put him on administrative leave the day he was arrested.

"The acts of which Rev. Michael Zacharias has been found guilty are reprehensible, morally deplorable, and manifestly contrary to the dignity due to each human person and the dignity of the priesthood," Toledo Bishop Daniel E. Thomas said in a May 12 statement. "The Church cannot and will not tolerate any such behavior and takes any sexual abuse or misconduct on the part of a cleric with the utmost seriousness."

With the conclusion of the federal trial and the conviction of the priest on all five charges against him, the diocese said it "is now free to address this matter" according to the church's Code of Canon Law. "The case will be presented to the Holy See who will make the final judgment, which will lead to a determination of his status as a priest," the diocese said.

"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," Bishop Thomas said. "Our society and Church together must bring evil into the light, wherever it is found."

Father Zacharias was ordained in 2002 and has served in Toledo diocesan parishes in Mansfield, Van Wert and Fremont before being assigned to the church in Findlay in 2017.

AP quoted prosecutors as saying the priest "paid the victims to engage in sex acts with him using the victims' fear of serious harm to compel their compliance." They also said the three victims were developing serious drug addictions and the priest "waited to propose commercial sex" until they were heavily involved in drug abuse.

Cellphone records of the victims obtained by investigators detailed multiple text exchanges between the priest and the men in which the encounters were arranged.

In its statement, the Diocese of Toledo said it remains vigilant in ensuring the protection of children and providing a safe environment for all young people, as well as ensuring the dignity and integrity of the priesthood.

Any allegations of sexual abuse by a priest, deacon, staff member or volunteer affiliated with the Diocese of Toledo should first be reported to local law enforcement where the abuse is alleged to have occurred, the diocese said. Any such allegation also should be reported to the Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator at 419-214-4880, it added.

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