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‘Inhumane’: Catholic priest faces possible life sentence for ‘forcing’ multiple children into commercial sex trafficking

Michael Jude Zacharias (Hancock County Sheriff's Office)

Michael Jude Zacharias (Hancock County Sheriff’s Office)

A Roman Catholic priest in northern Ohio is facing a possible sentence of life in prison after he was convicted on multiple child sex trafficking charges.

A federal jury on Friday found Rev. Michael Jude Zacharias guilty 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, court records reviewed by Law&Crime show.

“This defendant betrayed the victims in the most inhumane way,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement following the verdict. “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.”

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, the charges against Zacharias stem from him paying at least three victims to engage in sex acts with him by leveraging the victims’ “fear of serious harm to compel their compliance” over the course of about 15 years. Prosecutors say that Zacharias trafficked two of the victims when they were minors as well as when they were adults.

During the federal trial, jurors were presented with evidence showing that Zacharias met his victims during his time as a Seminarian at St. Catherine’s Catholic Parish in Toledo when the victims were only young children.

Zacharias groomed the children 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,” prosecutors wrote. He was able to overcome the victims’ resistance to his eventual commercial sex overtures by “gradually sexualizing conversations and conduct with them.”

While Zacharias was “sexualizing” the youths, the victims were simultaneously developing addictions to opioids which later turned into heroin addictions. Knowing the victims were all heavy drug abusers, Zacharias waited until they had nearly reached rock bottom before he began to propose the idea of them performing commercial sex acts, prosecutors said.

Each of the victims took the stand during the trial and explained how they eventually gave in 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,” the release states.

Two of the victims were also brothers. The older brother told the jury he feared that if he did not comply with Zacharias’ solicitations for commercial sex, then the priest would sexually abuse his minor brother.

“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.

A date for Zacharias’ sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled. He is facing a maximum sentence of life in federal prison and a mandatory minimum of 15 years. He will also be legally required to pay the victims restitution.

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.