Catholic priest sentenced to life for sex trafficking boys, manipulating opioid addictions

An Ohio priest was sentenced to life in prison Friday after he was convicted of grooming three boys and taking advantage of their opioid addictions to force them into commercial sex, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

In May, a federal jury in Toledo found the Rev. Michael Zacharias, a Roman Catholic clergymember, guilty of five counts of sex trafficking in allegations that spanned 15 years, from July 2005 to August 2020. Prosecutors said he abused his role as a teacher and priest at a Toledo parish school to groom the three boys into adulthood, force them into sex and enable their addictions to pain medications and heroin later in life.

“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 Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a statement.

The Rev. Michael Zacharias conducts Mass at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Mansfield in 2014.

The Rev. Michael Zacharias conducts Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Mansfield in 2014.

Toledo diocese: Ohio Catholic priest guilty of sex trafficking boys; allegations spanned 15 years

Testimony and evidence at trial showed Zacharias developed relationships with the victims’ families when they were young to gain their trust, prosecutors said. As the victims got older, he exploited their fears, their housing instability and their criminal records to force them into commercial sex.

Zacharias was ordained as a priest in 2002, a Diocese of Toledo news release said. In 2020, upon his arrest, Zacharias was placed on administrative leave from his role in the diocese and a pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Toledo.

On Friday, the Rev. Daniel Thomas, the bishop for the Toledo diocese, said in a statement that Zacharias’ life sentence marked another step toward justice. After he was convicted in May, Thomas said, the diocese requested to dismiss Zacharias, 56, under canonical law, but it needs official approval from the Vatican. The diocese is awaiting a response.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio Catholic priest gets life sentence for sex trafficking of boys

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