Findlay priest sentenced to life in prison in sex trafficking case

TOLEDO — A Roman Catholic priest convicted in May on five counts of sex trafficking was sentenced to life in prison Friday in federal court.

Michael Zacharias, 56, of Findlay was convicted of grooming three young boys and using drugs to coerce them into commercial sex acts, using “his position of authority as a spiritual leader to groom the boys and grow close with their families,” according to a release from the office of Rebecca Lutzko, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.

Zacharias first met the victims, then ages 5, 11 and 13, in 1999 at a Catholic school in Toledo while training to become a priest. During his more than 20 years as a priest, serving in multiple parishes, including St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Findlay and St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church in Van Wert, Zacharias exploited the three victims as they struggled in their studies, developed opioid addictions and engaged in criminal activity. This forced the victims to become even more dependent on Zacharias to avoid opioid withdrawal and homelessness, according to the release, which created more opportunities for abuse and exploitation. This exploitation was revealed through phone and financial records obtained during an FBI investigation.

“I applaud the bravery of these young men, the people who supported them and the dogged efforts of the assigned FBI agent, who together exposed this predator, masquerading as a man of faith,” Lutzko said in a statement. “Although no amount of time can ever wholly repair the damage that Zacharias inflicted on this victims, the life sentence that he received today is a significant step toward finding justice and protecting our community.”

U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary also ordered Zacharias to serve five years of supervised release, pay a $500 special assessment and pay $25,000 pursuant to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.

In a statement released after the sentencing, Bishop Daniel Thomas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo described the sentencing as “another step towards justice for all of those harmed by [Zacharias’] actions.”

“At the conclusion of the federal trial and the conviction of Zacharias, 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,” Thomas said in the statement. “We are awaiting the response.”