(5-13-23) WASHINGTON – A 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 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.