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Former Findlay priest found guilty of sex trafficking minors, adults

Michael Zacharias, 53, was found guilty of five counts of sex trafficking by a federal jury Friday for crimes that occurred from approximately 1999 to July 2020.

FINDLAY, Ohio — Former Findlay priest Michael Zacharias was found guilty of sex trafficking of a minor and sex trafficking of minors and adults using force, fraud or coercion by a federal jury Friday.

Zacharias, 53, was a priest at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Findlay prior to his arrest in August 2020 for crimes that occurred from approximately 1999 to July 2020.

He was found guilty on five sex trafficking counts - one count of sex trafficking of a minor, one count of sex trafficking of a minor by force, fraud and coercion, one count of sex trafficking of a minor by force, fraud or coercion, and two counts of sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud or coercion.

The judge will set a date for sentencing next week.

Prosecutors said Zacharias used his position to seek out underage victims and using their drug addiction as a way to coerce them into sexual activity.

In one instance, while he was enrolled in the seminary, Zacharias met a victim at a local school. He groomed the minor victim, according to court documents - a process in which the abuser befriends and establishes a connection with a child, and sometimes their family, to lower their inhibitions with the objection of sexual abuse. The abuser often provides the targeted victim with attention, affection, money and gifts and makes inappropriate sexual comments.

After building a relationship with the victim, Zacharias gave them money to support their drug addiction in exchange for the alleged sexual acts. This behavior is said to have continued throughout the victims’ life and into adulthood.

In another instance, Zacharias groomed the underage sibling of one of his victims using similar methods - exploiting their drug addiction and giving them money to maintain a relationship.

"Michael Zacharias used his respected position to prey on and take advantage of youth and adults for his own sexual gratification," said the FBI special agent in the initial charge. "We must hold accountable to the fullest extent of the law those who violate their sacred trust to molest and harm our children."

Zacharias' case will be presented to the Holy See - the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church - "which will lead to a determination of his status as a priest," the Diocese of Toledo said in a statement on Friday. The diocese was waiting until the federal charges were resolved to "pursue a canonical (Church law) process regarding the matter."

When Zacharias was arrested in 2020, he was removed from "public priestly ministry" by the diocese and could not "present himself publicly as a priest." He has not been defrocked, though. The Holy See will determine whether he is removed from priesthood.

On Saturday, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the well-known victim’s advocate group, released a statement on Fr. Zacharias’ arrest.

The organization, which works to expose abusers and suspected abusers in the Catholic Church and those who shield them, applauded the conviction:

“We are grateful to the brave victims in this case and know that without their courage and constancy that this dangerous predator would still have access to children.”

SNAP went on to call on the church to do more to stop abuse:

"It is notable that Fr. Zacharias' crimes all occurred shortly before, during, and after the US Bishops convened in Dallas to pledge openness, honesty, and transparency via the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. As myriad cases over the past twenty years has demonstrated, this charter did little to stop contemporaneous abuse, and nothing to address the core fault-lines in the institutional church that have made secrecy and cover-up the norm."

Any allegations of sexual abuse by a priest, deacon, staff member or volunteer affiliated with the Diocese of Toledo should first be reported to local law enforcement where the abuse is alleged to have occurred. 

The diocese also asks that any such allegation be reported to the Diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator at 419-214-4880.

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