Bringing an end to a shocking case out of Ohio, Michael Zacharias, a Roman Catholic priest convicted on five counts of sex trafficking, received a sentence of life in prison, as the Associated Press reports.
According to the outlet, Zacharias, 56, was found guilty of molesting three boys he initially encountered at a preschool and who he went on to engage in illicit activities after they grew into adulthood.
The counts on which Zacharias was convicted included those related to sex trafficking of a minor and sex trafficking of a minor by force, fraud or coercion, as well as counts of sex trafficking of an adult, also by force, fraud, or coercion.
Prosecutors in the case argued that Zacharias paid the men to engage in sexual activity with him, leveraging their fear of harm along the way.
He also reportedly took advantage of the young men's worsening drug dependence to coerce their involvement in sexual conduct.
Zacharias exploited the victims' anxiety about the possibility of having to experience opioid withdrawal or homelessness, worries that the government said led them to agree to sex acts in exchange for money that could prevent such outcomes.
A press release from the Justice Department announcing the life sentence noted that the priest “used his affiliation and position of authority to groom the boys and grow close with their families before ultimately coercing the victims into engaging in commercial sex acts and manipulating the opioid addictions they developed.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke declared, “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.”
“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,” Clarke added.
U.S. Attorney Rebecca Lutzko added, “Zacharias was held accountable because of the courageous testimony of these young men, who gave voice to his betrayal and abuse, relived this unimaginable horror and withstood Zacharias' predictable attempts at trial to attack their veracity.”
As the AP noted, Zacharias continued to declare his innocence throughout the legal proceedings against him.
The priest contended that no sexual activity with the victims ever took place while they were underage, and he claimed that any sexual interactions that did occur after they reached the age of majority were all consensual.
Zacharias also attempted to cast doubt on the victims' motivation for their testimony in the case, pointing out that they received favorable outcomes in drug cases in exchange for cooperation with prosecutors.
The priest had been on administrative leave from the Roman Catholic diocese of Toledo since August 2020, and following his conviction in May, a case for final defrocking was sent to the Holy See, which is the entity charged with rendering a final determination about Zacharias' future in the Church.