A federal jury in Northern District of Ohio convicted Michael J. Zacharias, a priest, of five counts of sex trafficking. The charges related to three victims, two of whom Zacharias trafficked when they were minors and as adults. The evidence presented to the jury detailed how Zacharias paid the victims to engage in sex acts with him using the victims’ fear of serious harm to compel their compliance.
Specifically, the jury heard evidence of how Zacharias first met the victims when they were young boys, and he was a Seminarian at St. Catherine’s Catholic Parish school in Toledo, Ohio, and how Zacharias began grooming the boys 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. 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. 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 victims’ testimony explained how, in varying degrees, they submitted 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. One victim in particular – the older brother of another victim – also explained how he feared Zacharias would sexually abuse his minor brother and others if he did not continue to comply with the defendant’s commercial sex solicitations.
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