Warning: This post may contain content that is disturbing to readers.
A Catholic priest in Ohio was arrested Tuesday for child sex trafficking and is accused of grooming and abusing at least two victims since the '90s.
The FBI cuffed Michael Zacharias, 53, after morning Mass at St. Michael the Archangel in Findlay. The pastor is charged with coercion and enticement, sex trafficking of a minor, and sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion. According to the feds, Zacharias was taken into custody without incident at his residence.
Court filings describe how Zacharias preyed on two vulnerable boys and continued abusing them after they became adults by taking advantage of their struggles with addiction. One of the victim’s drug problems “stemmed from his confusion about his sexuality based on years of inappropriate touching by Zacharias,” an FBI agent noted in an affidavit.
Some evidence in the case even includes sickening videos Zacharias created with one of the victims, who kept the footage on a USB drive. “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,” Zacharias texted the victim in late July, according to an FBI affidavit.
Authorities believe Zacharias victimized more children beyond the Findlay community and St. Michael parish. FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric Smith said the priest worked at a slew of Ohio churches, including St. Catherine of Siena in Toledo, St. Peter’s in Mansfield, St. Mary of the Assumption in Van Wert, and St. Ann and St. Joseph in Fremont. (The Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo released a statement claiming these are the first known sexual abuse accusations against the priest, who was ordained in 2002.)
“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 oftentimes vulnerable and at-risk children,” Smith told reporters at a press conference Tuesday, in front of Zacharias’ two-story home in Findlay.
Asked why the Cleveland Division of the FBI began to look into Zacharias, Smith answered, “Information related to this investigation came as a result of another unrelated investigation and our review of evidence in that investigation.”
An affidavit in support of a criminal complaint details how a fentanyl possession case involving one of Zacharias’ victims led to the priest’s arrest.
In late July, FBI agents were investigating a 32-year-old man identified as “Victim #1” in the drug probe and seized three of his cellphones. While searching the devices, authorities found graphic text messages with a contact known as “FrZ.” The number for “FrZ” was linked to Zacharias, authorities say.
The victim told investigators that “Zacharias had molested and raped him as a child,” the affidavit states, adding that “Zacharias paid him in exchange for being able to perform oral sex on Victim #1 when Victim #1 was a minor, and that Zacharias continued to pay him money for sex even after Victim #1 turned 18, including when Victim #1 was drug-addicted and needed the money for his drug habit.” The victim never reported these crimes to law enforcement, the affidavit states.
According to the affidavit, the man said he first met Zacharias, who was in the Seminary at the time, when he was a sixth-grader at a Toledo Catholic school. The priest began to groom the victim, whose father was “physically abusive and largely absent,” and gave the child money, spent time with him, and engaged in inappropriate touching and sexual comments throughout junior high and high school, the affidavit alleges.
Zacharias stayed in contact with the victim after he was ordained and transferred to parishes in Mansfield and Van Wert, and the grooming escalated into sexual abuse, investigators say.
The victim told authorities that he’d become addicted to drugs as a teenager and needed money to support his habit and prevent the effects of withdrawal. Zacharias offered $500 and $1,000 before giving the victim $1,500 in return for the sexual abuse, the document states.
The man told police “he did not want Zacharias to do it and only relented because he needed the money to support his drug habit.” Zacharias allegedly continued to pay the victim after the sexual abuse while he was a minor and the abuse continued when he became an adult. According to the victim, the abuse usually took place at Zacharias’ rectory in Van Wert.
When the victim was in his mid-20s, the affidavit says, Zacharias announced he wanted to make an “action video” and a “confession video” which would give the victim “power over him.” The FBI reviewed a USB thumb drive of these videos, which were apparently created in January 2015 and provided by the victim.
The action video depicts Zacharias sexually abusing the victim, while the confession footage shows the priest in clergy attire as he admits to grooming and abusing the victim, using language too graphic and disturbing to print.
Meanwhile, the victim told FBI agents that he’s visited Zacharias’ residence or rectory in Findlay on about six or seven occasions in the last year for paid sex.
From April to July, Zacharias pressured the victim to make more “action videos” in exchange for money, according to the FBI’s review of text messages.
On July 20, 2020, Zacharias texted the victim about the videos: “If you really did keep a copy and put them in a safety deposit box in the bank, I would have a whole new respect and admiration for you—knowing you planned all along to hold on to them and keep them safe until you decide to use them for your own benefit some day. It tells me you’re definitely holding onto them to use them… 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 also warned the victim that if anyone found out about the sexual abuse, the victim would be portrayed as a “kid with a drug problem” in the news.
When the victim informed Zacharias that he was arrested for selling stolen tools, Zacharias replied that police would likely see their texts. “It would only take one cop to tell the Bishops,” Zacharias wrote, warning that if authorities discovered the abuse, the victim would never receive money from him again. The priest told the victim to destroy the USB drive and toss it in the garbage, the affidavit says.
Zacharias is also accused of abusing a 26-year-old man identified as “Victim #2,” who met the priest as a first-grader at St. Catherine’s Catholic School in Toledo.
The victim told police that Zacharias would visit his home and take his older brothers on walks and went into his brothers’ bedrooms. Even after Zacharias left Toledo, the priest returned occasionally to visit the victim, his mother, and brothers.
Zacharias began to make inappropriate sexual comments to the victim when he was in eighth or ninth grade and struggling with opioid addiction. On one occasion, the victim said he stayed home from school because he was “dope sick,” or experiencing withdrawal, and Zacharias came over and offered him $50 to purchase an “oxy” pill. As part of the exchange, the priest sexually abused the victim.
The priest continued to abuse the victim over the years, including when the victim was 18 and still suffering from drug addiction. “Zacharias again warned Victim #2 not to tell anyone or he could get in trouble,” the affidavit states.
“Victim #2 advised that he was too scared to report what Zacharias did to him, because he felt like no one would believe him—a young troubled drug-addict, whether as a minor or adult—over Zacharias, a respected Catholic Priest,” the document continues.
The FBI has asked anyone who’d had “unwanted sexual contact” with the priest to come forward to the FBI, which set up a hotline at (216) 622-6842.
On Tuesday, the Diocese of Toledo issued a statement on Zacharias and said he was put on administrative leave. “This action was taken immediately upon receiving word of his arrest this morning in Findlay,” the organization stated. “The Diocese has been informed of the grave and reprehensible charges of a sexual nature, with minors and adults, and is cooperating fully with law enforcement.”
The statement also included a quote from Bishop Daniel Thomas, who said he was “profoundly shocked and grieved to learn of these charges against one of our priests.”
“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,” Thomas said. “As we await the outcome of the criminal investigation, our prayers go out to anyone affected by this situation.”