An Ohio priest respected as a “religious and community leader” has been sex trafficking vulnerable minors and adults for more than two decades, the Department of Justice announced in an indictment unsealed Friday.
A grand jury has charged Rev. Michael J. Zacharias, age 53, with sex trafficking minors and sex trafficking both minors and adults by force, 10 counts in all. Federal authorities arrested Zacharias on August 18 and have kept him in custody since. He taught at St. Michael’s Parish in Findlay, Ohio.
“Michael Zacharias used his respected position to prey on and take advantage of youth and adults for his own sexual gratification,” said Brian Russ, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation.
One victim, whose identity was not disclosed, said Zacharias began grooming him while still a seminarian in 1999, according to court documents. The victim was then 12, still in the sixth grade, and Zacharias allegedly abused him throughout his teen and adult years. Zacharias allegedly paid the victim for oral sex, and the victim returned to the priest many times to feed a dependency on painkillers. The victim said his drug addiction stemmed in part from feelings of self-loathing and questions about his sexuality brought on by the abuse he suffered at Zacharias’ hands.
A second victim described a similar pattern: he was home sick from opioid withdrawal in ninth grade when Zacharias allegedly visited and paid him for oral sex. The victim used the money to acquire more drugs. The victim told the FBI he was afraid to report the abuse because of the optics of a young drug addict accusing a respected priest of sexual abuse.
In yet another instance laid out in court documents, Zacharias allegedly groomed the underage sibling of one of his victims and paid the sibling so as to be able to abuse him.
Zacharias allegedly filmed himself molesting one victim and recorded himself confessing to the sexual acts. According to the affidavit, Zacharias says in one clip, “My name is Michael Zacharias. I first met [Victim #1] when he was in 6th grade at St. Catherine’s and I was a Seminarian. I knew from the first time I saw him that I wanted to suck his dick.”
Zacharias goes on to describe staring at the victim’s buttocks while the two were alone together in a hospital room, according to the affidavit. The boy was sick with meningitis.
“I always loved [Victim #1]. I got to know him over the years. I knew that he was, that his dad was out of the picture, and I started grooming him,” Zacharias allegedly said.
Text messages between the two depict Zacharias as deriving sexual pleasure from a reversal of the power dynamic between the two, with the victim recording and keeping video of Zacharias performing sexual acts and confessing to abusing him. The priest allegedly paid the victim to make the videos and demonstrate that he had never erased them so as to maintain leverage over Zacharias.
“The great thing for you is that I actually paid you to make the videos and that you will one day ruin me with them and get rich. You are such a stud!!” Zacharias allegedly texted.
Zacharias’ years of alleged abuse apparently only came to light after the unnamed victim was arrested in July in an unrelated case in which investigators examined his text messages. After his arrest, Zacharias told him to delete the videos, as he suspected they would get him into trouble. The victim turned the videos over to law enforcement instead.