A priest was sentenced today to life in prison for sex trafficking in northern Ohio.
A federal jury in Toledo, Ohio, previously found defendant Michael Zacharias, 56, guilty of five counts of sex trafficking following a two-week trial in May. Evidence presented at trial showed that Zacharias met the victims through his affiliation with a Catholic school. The evidence showed that he used his affiliation and position of authority to groom the boys and grow close with their families before ultimately coercing the victims into engaging in commercial sex acts and manipulating the opioid addictions they developed.
“Michael Zacharias used his position as a trusted spiritual leader and role model for young boys and their families to exploit them in the most insidious ways, coercing his victims from childhood and beyond to engage in commercial sex with him,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “This sentence sends a very clear message that those who abuse their positions of power and authority to sexually assault and exploit children will be held accountable. The Justice Department stands ready to fully enforce our federal human trafficking statutes while seeking justice for the survivors of these treacherous crimes.”
“Michael Zacharias’ victims trusted him, as a spiritual advisor, a confidant, a community leader and someone in a position of authority. He exploited his position and that trust to target and victimize young boys and their families, causing lasting damage to both,” said U.S. Attorney Rebecca C. Lutzko for the Northern District of Ohio. “Zacharias was held accountable because of the courageous testimony of these young men, who gave voice to his betrayal and abuse, relieved this unimaginable horror and withstood Zacharias’ predictable attempts at trial to attack their veracity. I applaud the bravery of these young men, the people who supported them and the dogged efforts of the assigned FBI agent, who together exposed this predator, masquerading as a man of faith. 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. It sends a message to others who consider similar conduct that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will aggressively pursue charges against those who target our children.”
“For more than two decades, Michael Zacharias used his position as a priest to groom and abuse young boys,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “Zacharias met his victims when they were as young as five and began exploiting them for commercial sex acts and enabling their resulting opioid addictions. We are profoundly thankful to the victims and families who reported Zacharias and helped the FBI and our partners put an end to further abuse.”
“Using a position of trust while deviously preying on one’s vulnerabilities, especially juveniles, is reprehensible,” said Special Agent in Charge Greg Nelsen of the FBI Cleveland Field Office. “The FBI has zero tolerance for sexual predators and those who commit crimes against children. We will continue to find and investigate individuals and their network who exploit and traffic children and seek justice for the victims and their families.”
Evidence presented at trial, including the testimony of victims and family members, established that the defendant met the victims when they were minor parochial school students through his affiliation with their school. The evidence showed that the defendant served as a respected member of the clergy for more than 20 years, while exploiting his victims over extended periods as they developed opioid addictions and criminal records.
According to testimony and other evidence presented at trial, including financial and phone records, the defendant manipulated the victims’ fears of opioid withdrawal and homelessness to exploit them for commercial sex acts he directed them to perform in exchange for money.
The FBI Cleveland Field Office, Lima and Toledo Resident Agencies 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 prosecuted the case.
Anyone who has information about human trafficking should report that information to the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more information about human trafficking, please visit www.humantraffickinghotline.org