A jury has convicted an Ohio Catholic priest on five counts of sex trafficking, the Department of Justice announced.
The Department of Justice said Michael J. Zacharias trafficked three victims, two of whom were children who he continued to traffic as adults. The DOJ said it had evidence that Zacharias paid the victims to engage in sex acts with him.
The DOJ said he began grooming the victims when they were young boys while serving at St. Catherines Catholic Parish school in Toledo, Ohio. Prosecutors said he integrated himself into the boys 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, the Department of Justice said. 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 Catholic Church has battled accusations of sex abuse among some of its priests for years. The calls for action have grown as oftentimes, the statute of limitation runs out by the time victims come forward.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian told Scripps News last month that Pope Francis has personally protected abusers. He said that while the pope has tried to implement programs, they’re voluntary, don’t have any teeth and aren’t meaningful.
“The Catholic Church is a big PR machine,” Garabedian said. “I think Pope Francis has said a lot of great things, made a lot of great statements, but he hasn’t done anything very much of substance. He’s dismissed only one of two bishops when he should have dismissed many, many more bishops. He should have programs in place that aren’t voluntary, that have to be supervised from an entity outside the church so that those programs remain effective to protect children, and to educate priests, and to help victims try to heal. But there is really none of that.”
Zacharias has not been sentenced as of yet.
This defendant betrayed the victims in the most inhumane way, said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke. 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.
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