CNA Staff, Nov 20, 2023 / 12:45 pm (CNA).
An Ohio priest was sentenced to life in prison Friday after being convicted of multiple sexual abuse charges earlier this year.
Parish priest Michael Zacharias was convicted on five counts of sex trafficking by a federal jury in the Northern District of Ohio in May.
The priest had been arrested in 2020 on the charges, which included "coercion and enticement, sex trafficking of a minor, and sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud, or coercion."
Zacharias had engaged in sexual conduct with minors since the late 1990s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said at the time.
Upon his conviction in May, he faced a minimum of 15 years in prison. The U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release on Friday that the priest received a life sentence for the crimes.
Luis Quesada, an assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, said in the release that Zacharias "met his victims when they were as young as 5 and began exploiting them for commercial sex acts and enabling their resulting opioid addictions."
The release said the priest met the victims "when they were minor parochial school students through his affiliation with their school."
Zacharias "exploit[ed] his victims over extended periods as they developed opioid addictions and criminal records," the release said. The priest later reportedly "manipulated the victims' fears of opioid withdrawal and homelessness" to abuse them further.
"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," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in the press release.
"This sentence sends a very clear message that those who abuse their positions of power and authority to sexually assault and exploit children will be held accountable," she continued.
"The Justice Department stands ready to fully enforce our federal human trafficking statutes while seeking justice for the survivors of these treacherous crimes."
Upon learning of the abuse charges in 2020, Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas placed Zacharias on immediate administrative leave, forbidding him from exercising public priestly ministry or presenting himself as a priest while the claims were being investigated.
After his conviction earlier this year, the diocese said Zacharias' case would "be presented to the Holy See, who will make the final judgment, which will lead to a determination of his status as a priest."
In a statement on Friday, Thomas said Zacharias' sentencing "marks another step towards justice for all of those harmed by his actions."
"At the conclusion of the federal trial and the conviction of Zacharias," Thomas said, "the diocese, in accord with Canon (Church) Law, had requested the imposition of the penalty of direct dismissal of the clerical state (returning him to the lay state), transmitting the case to the Holy See who alone has the authority to make a final determination concerning his status as a priest in the Church."
Diocesan spokeswoman Kelly Donaghy told CNA on Monday morning that the diocese was "still awaiting a response" from the Holy See.