Thursday, February 22, 2024

An Ohio priest who coerced three boys into engaging in sexual acts as children and abused their addiction to opioids as teenagers and adults, paying them money that funded their drug habits in exchange for sex, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday, the Justice Department said.

The priest, Michael Zacharias, 56, was found guilty in May of five counts of sex trafficking by a federal jury in Toledo, Ohio, in a case that prosecutors said revealed how a trusted spiritual leader had preyed on childhood piety.

During the two-week trial, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio described the pernicious actions of Mr. Zacharias, who they said had targeted financially vulnerable boys without fathers or steady lives at home, earning their trust through affections that eventually morphed into inappropriate sexual comments and touching.

Michael ZachariasCredit…WTOL 11 News

Rebecca C. Lutzko, the U.S. attorney in the district, said in a statement on Friday that Mr. Zacharias “was held accountable because of the courageous testimony of these young men, who gave voice to his betrayal and abuse.”

She added that “although no amount of time can ever wholly repair the damage that Zacharias inflicted on his victims, the life sentence that he received today is a significant step toward finding justice and protecting our community.”

Mr. Zacharias’s lawyers did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment late Friday night. During the trial, Mr. Zacharias maintained his innocence and contended that any sexual acts he had engaged in had been consensual and with adults, according to court records.

The Diocese of Toledo said in a statement that Mr. Zacharias’s “status as a priest” was still awaiting a “final determination” from the Vatican.

Bishop Daniel Thomas of the Diocese of Toledo said in a statement in May, after Mr. Zacharias’s conviction, that “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.”

The Roman Catholic Church has long been plagued by reports of sexual abuse of children by priests across the county, leading to criminal cases that have shrouded the church in shame.

During Mr. Zacharias’s trial, prosecutors repeatedly emphasized that he had been not only predatory with children, but also cruel. Their lives, prosecutors said, had been corroded by a priest who had exploited their drug addictions for his own sexual satisfaction.

One victim — who was in junior high school and high school when he interacted with Mr. Zacharias — told investigators that sometime before he had turned 17, Mr. Zacharias knew he was addicted to drugs and made an offer: $1,500 for a sexual act.

The victim, unidentified in court records, “advised that he did not want Zacharias to do it and only relented because he needed the money to support his drug habit,” according to court documents.

Mr. Zacharias was well aware of his misconduct, court records state: In a video he once made that was later obtained by the authorities, he confessed to “grooming” the victim in sixth grade and thinking at the time that he wanted to perform a sexual act on the boy. The video then shows the priest performing that sexual act on the victim, who was in his mid-20s at the time.

A second victim interacted with Mr. Zacharias at St. Catherine’s Catholic School in Toledo, Ohio, from kindergarten to eighth grade.

When the victim, also unidentified in court records, was in ninth grade, he told the priest that he was “dope sick,” or experiencing withdrawal from not using drugs, court records state. Mr. Zacharias arrived at the house of the victim and told him that he would pay $50 for a drug if the victim let him engage in a sexual act with him, records show.

The victim did not want to do it, but “knowing that the $50 would enable him to buy an OxyContin pill that would make him feel better,” he eventually agreed, according to prosecutors.

Another time, when the victim was 18 years old and still suffering from drug addiction, Mr. Zacharias visited him and asked if he “was still using drugs,” prosecutors said. The victim said yes.

Mr. Zacharias again engaged in a sexual act and told the victim “not to tell anyone or he could get in trouble,” records state.

Years later, though, the victim did.

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