U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman announced today that a federal grand jury sitting in Cleveland has returned a 10-count indictment charging Michael J. Zacharias, age 53, with sex trafficking of a minor and sex trafficking of an adult and minor by force, fraud, or coercion. The defendant was arrested on August 18, 2020, and has remained in federal custody since that time.
“This defendant is accused of using his status and position as a religious and community leader to seek out troubled minors and exploit their personal challenges for his own satisfaction,” said U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman. “This indictment is a step towards finding justice for the victims, families and community harmed by the defendant and his alleged acts.”
“Michael Zacharias used his respected position to prey on and take advantage of youth and adults for his own sexual gratification,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge. “We must hold accountable to the fullest extent of the law those who violate their sacred trust to molest and harm our children. The FBI encourages anyone that may have been groomed or victimized by Michael Zacharias, and have not spoken to law enforcement yet, to contact the FBI at 1-877-FBI-OHIO (1-877-324-6446).”
According to court documents, from approximately 1999 to July of 2020, the defendant is accused of engaging in the activity of sex trafficking of a minor victim and using force, fraud, or coercion to sexually traffic other minors and adults. During this time, the defendant was enrolled as a seminarian and employed as a priest at various religious institutions in the Northern District of Ohio and elsewhere. The defendant is accused of allegedly using his position of trust to seek out underage, minor victims and guide them into performing sexual acts. In addition, the defendant is accused of using the drug addiction of his victims to coerce them into performing commercial sex acts.
In one instance, the defendant allegedly used his position to meet a minor victim at a local school while the defendant was enrolled in the seminary. The defendant allegedly groomed the minor victim, a process in which the sexual abuser befriends and establishes an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes also family members, to lower the child’s inhibitions with the objective of sexual abuse by providing him with attention, affection, money, gifts and inappropriate sexual comments. After establishing a connection, the defendant is accused of performing sex acts with the victim and creating a process in which the defendant would give the victim money to be used in order to further their drug addiction in exchange for the sexual acts. This behavior allegedly continued throughout the victims’ life into adulthood.
In another instance, the defendant is accused of grooming the underage sibling of one of his victims into similar behavior – using a drug addiction and money to maintain their relationship.
The FBI is encouraging anyone that has had contact with Michael Zacharias where they may have been groomed for possible future sexual purposes, they were inappropriately touched, or they were sexually assaulted by Michael Zacharias to contact the FBI at (216) 622-6842. All information will be strictly confidential.
An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
If convicted, the defendant’s sentence will be determined by the court after a review of factors unique to this case, including the defendant’s prior criminal record, if any, the defendant’s role in the offenses and the characteristics of the violations. In all cases, the sentence will not exceed the statutory maximum and in most cases it will be less than the maximum.
The investigation preceding the indictment was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Tracey Ballard Tangeman and Deyana Unis.