FINDLAY — Federal law enforcement officials arrested the pastor of the Catholic church in Findlay on Tuesday morning on federal sex trafficking charges involving boys. He previously served as pastor at a church in Van Wert, where at least some of the sexual acts allegedly took place, according to the federal indictment.
The Rev. Michael Zacharias, 53, of Findlay, faces federal charges of coercion and enticement, sex trafficking of a minor and sex trafficking of an adult by force, fraud or coercion, according to the Cleveland Division of the FBI-Lima Resident Agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office-Northern District of Ohio.
Zacharias has been pastor at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, Findlay, since 2017. A video on the church’s Facebook page shows Zacharias saying Mass on Tuesday morning prior to his arrest at the church, which is a stone’s throw from his residence.
The priest was taken into custody by the Northwest Ohio Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force as he made the short walk from the church to his home following morning Mass, according to an FBI spokesman.
Bishop Daniel E. Thomas, of the Diocese of Toledo, termed the allegations against Zacharias “grave and reprehensible.”
“I am profoundly shocked and grieved to learn of these charges against one of our priests,” Thomas said in a prepared statement. “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. As we await the outcome of the criminal investigation, our prayers go out to anyone affected by this situation.”
Special Agent Eric Smith held a press conference late Tuesday morning outside the residence where Zacharias lived. The home is owned by the church.
Acknowledging that Zacharias had been taken into federal custody that morning, Smith said, “We are very concerned, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families and the parishioners at St. Michael’s parish for the activities that have gone on here over the past several years.”
“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 often vulnerable and at-risk children,” the FBI agent said. “We suspect there are other victims not only in this community but in others where Father Zacharias has served.”
Smith said federal law enforcement officials believe Zacharias had sexual contact with minors since the 1990s. In addition to two victims referenced in the indictment, “we believe there are others, and we are asking anyone who has had unwanted sexual contact with Father Michael Zacharias to contact the FBI at 216-622-6842. If you believe you’ve been solicited or groomed for future sexual contact, please contact us. Based on our investigation, it appears individuals were targeted and were groomed over a long period of time for continued gratification.”
The federal indictment against Zacharias was unsealed Tuesday after his initial appearance in U.S. District Court for Northern Ohio in Toledo. It identifies a 33-year-old male as “Victim 1” and a 26-year-old male as “Victim 2.”
Both met Zacharias when they were in a Catholic grade school in Toledo, and both told investigators they were targeted by the priest for sex beginning in middle school and into their adult years, including earlier this year. They told investigators Zacharias performed oral sex on them in exchange for money each needed to support their drug habits.
It is unclear whether the two men knew each other.
When Victim 1 was in his 20s, according to the indictment, Zacharias said he wanted to make a “confession video” which the priest said would give the man “power over him.” In that video, contained on a USB thumb-drive turned over to the FBI by Victim 1, Zacharias talks about first meeting the boy when he was in sixth grade and recalling his overwhelming desire to perform oral sex on the youngster.
In texts from April to July of this year, Zacharias again offered to pay Victim 1 for sex on multiple occasions. The texts go into detail about the acts to be conducted and the amount of money that was to change hands. Zacharias also suggests making some “action videos” in what investigators claimed “appears to be a way to ensure that Victim 1 will continue to have power over Zacharias,” according to the indictment.
Victim 1 told the FBI that the sex acts “usually” took place at Zacharias’ rectory in Van Wert when he was pastor there and sometimes in one of their vehicles.
In July the FBI interviewed Victim 2, who said he met Zacharias as a first-grader at St. Catherine’s Catholic School in Toledo while Zacharias was still in the seminary. He said inappropriate comments by Zacharias began when he was in eighth grade, the same time Victim 2 became addicted to opioids. While in ninth grade, Zacharias first performed oral sex on the boy in exchange for money to support Victim 2’s drug habit, according to the indictment.
“The Findlay Police Department has no information to believe that St. Michael’s School or its students are involved in Zacharias’ FBI complaint,” Findlay Mayor Christina Muryn said in a prepared statement.
Zacharias, a native of Elyria, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Toledo in 2002. He served as pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Van Wert from 2007 through 2011. A spokeswoman at the church on Tuesday referred all questions to Toledo diocese officials.
According to the FBI, Zacharias has also been a pastor at St. Peter’s parish in Mansfield and St. Anne’s and St. Joseph in Fremont.