federal jury in Northern District of Ohio convicted Michael J.
Zacharias, a priest, of five counts of sex trafficking. The charges
related to three victims, two of whom Zacharias trafficked when they
were minors and as adults. The evidence presented to the jury detailed
how Zacharias paid the victims to engage in sex acts with him using the
victims’ fear of serious harm to compel their compliance.
Specifically, the jury heard evidence of how
Zacharias first met the victims when they were young boys, and he was a
Seminarian at St. Catherine’s Catholic Parish school in Toledo, Ohio,
and how Zacharias began grooming the boys for commercial sex acts, using
his position as a priest and teacher to ingratiate himself with the
boys and their families as a trusted friend, mentor and spiritual
counselor. The defendant overcame the victims’ resistance to his
eventual commercial sex overtures by gradually sexualizing conversations
and conduct with them. At the same time, the victims were developing
serious opiate addictions, using pain medication and, later, heroin.
Zacharias waited to propose commercial sex until he knew the victims
were so heavily involved in drug abuse that it was impacting their daily
lives, physical and mental well-being and ability to maintain a stable
school or work life.
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. One
victim in particular – the older brother of another victim – also
explained how he feared Zacharias would sexually abuse his minor brother
and others if he did not continue to comply with the defendant’s
commercial sex solicitations.
“This defendant betrayed the victims in the most
inhumane way,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the
Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “He robbed them of their
childhood, their dignity and their faith. He inflicted cruel
psychological harm, preying on their fears and forcing them to choose
between submitting to commercial sex acts, or incurring the pain of
losing a father figure or counselor, suffering withdrawal sickness, and
risking sexual abuse of a loved one. The Justice Department will
vigorously prosecute human trafficking crimes to hold offenders like
Michael Zacharias accountable and bring justice to their victims.”
“This verdict sends a clear message to those who prey
upon children by using positions of trust to further their crimes,”
said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern
District of Ohio. “Our office will continue to protect our children by
aggressively prosecuting child predators who engage in sex trafficking.”
“The defendant not only abused his victims, but also
betrayed the trust placed in him by the congregation and those who
dutifully serve parishes across the country,” said Special Agent in
Charge Gregory Nelsen of the FBI Cleveland Field Office. “The FBI is
committed to finding and investigating child predators, so no other
people become victim to deceitful and abhorrent behavior.”
Sentencing has not yet been scheduled. Zacharias
faces a fifteen-year mandatory minimum and lifetime maximum sentence.
Restitution in this case is mandatory under the law.
Assistant Attorney General Clarke and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Baeppler made the announcement.
The Lima and Toledo Resident Agencies of the FBI Cleveland Field Office investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracey Tangeman for the
Northern District of Ohio and Trial Attorney Lindsey Roberson of the
Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit are
prosecuting the case.