Ohio priest accused of sex trafficking

FINDLAY, Ohio — A Catholic priest in Ohio is accused of several crimes related to sexual conduct with minors, federal authorities said.

Michael Zacharias, 53, of Findlay, was charged with coercion and enticement, sex trafficking of a minor and sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion, the FBI’s Cleveland Bureau said in a news release Tuesday.

Zacharias was arrested without incident at his home in Findlay by members of the Northwest Ohio Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force, WTOL reported. Zacharias, the pastor at St. Michael the Archangel parish in Findlay, was placed on administrative leave by the Diocese of Toledo.

The diocese said Zacharias was ordained in 2002.

According to the complaint, investigators said they were aware that Zacharias has engaged in sexual conduct with minors since the late 1990s, the Findlay Courier reported.

“I am profoundly shocked and grieved to learn of these charges against one of our priests,” Bishop Daniel E. Thomas said in a news release. “The Church cannot and will not tolerate any such behavior and takes any sexual abuse or misconduct on the part of a cleric with the utmost seriousness. As we await the outcome of the criminal investigation, our prayers go out to anyone affected by this situation.”

In a news conference Tuesday outside Zacharias’ home, FBI Special Agent Eric Smith said the agency was “very concerned” about the charges.

“We grieve for the loss of innocence for those victims and also for those parishioners who placed their trust in someone who used that trust to prey on not only innocent but often vulnerable and at-risk children,” Smith said. “We suspect there are other victims not only in this community but in others where Father Zacharias has served.”

The federal complaint alleges the offenses involved Zacharias preying upon boys, and later men, who needed money for their drug addictions, the Courier reported.

The allegations against the priest actually surfaced during a drug investigation against one of two victims, who is now 32, according to court records.

“Text messages revealed sexual conversations between Victim #1 and a person identified in the cellphone’s contacts as ‘FrZ,’” the complaint alleges.

The first victim was allegedly abused as a Catholic school student in Toledo while Zacharias was in seminary school, WTVG reported. According to the complaint, Zacharias paid the victim for sexual favors, including when the student became an adult.

A second victim named in the complaint, now 26, told the FBI that he had met Zacharias while a ninth-grader at a Catholic school in Toledo, the television station reported.

“I am distraught by the news of the arrest of Father Michael Zacharias,” Findlay Mayor Christina Muryn said in a statement. “These allegations are not taken lightly, and the Findlay Police Department and our community at large will support the full and thorough investigation by the FBI. Such abuse of power, and perversion of sexuality is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by any organization, individual, or society.”

In May 2017, Zacharias was appointed by Thomas from pastor of Saint Ann Parish and Saint Joseph Parish in Fremont, where he had served for six years, to the Findlay parish, the Newark Advocate reported. Zacharias also served as priest at St. Peter’s in Mansfield and in Van Wert, the newspaper reported.

Comments on this article