Northeast Ohio Priest Sentenced to Life in Prison for Sex Trafficking Minors, Exploitation and Child Pornography
Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan announced that Robert D. McWilliams, 41, of Strongsville, Ohio, was sentenced today by Judge Sara Lioi to life in prison. McWilliams, a Northeast Ohio-area Catholic Priest at the time of the offense conduct, previously pleaded guilty to two counts of sex trafficking of a minor, three counts of sexual exploitation of a child, and one count each of transportation of child pornography, receipt and distribution of visual depiction of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct and possession of child pornography.
“This defendant violated and exploited children in nearly every manner imaginable,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan. “Using his role in the Church, Mr. McWilliams violated the sacrament of confession to identify potential victims, and offered religious counseling to victims he extorted under alter egos he intentionally created to conceal his own identity. He also used social media to target and entice young children into the exploitive world of juvenile sex trafficking, all after having already amassed a large collection of violent child pornography. We commend the victims and their families for the courage they have shown. We are also thankful to Homeland Security Investigations, the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office, and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for their work on this case and all cases involving perpetrators who target our children.”
“Mr. McWilliams used his position and reputation as a priest to meet and earn the trust of these children, only to betray that trust in the worst way possible for his own twisted gratification,” said HSI Detroit Special Agent in Charge Vance Callender. “HSI Detroit has several teams of agents and forensic interviewers throughout the region who work with state and local partners and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to identify individuals who exploit the communities’ trust.”
As set out in court documents, beginning in 2019, McWilliams used fake identities and technology to extort minors for sexually explicit images, amass a significant collection of child pornography and provide compensation to minors in exchange for sexual acts. McWilliams met some of the victims through his time in the seminary with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and as an appointed Parochial Vicar at a parish where the children and their families were affiliated.
According to court documents, McWilliams used the sacrament of confession to obtain information that he later exploited, by creating aliases, including posing as a minor, to seek the production of sexually explicit material from minors that he was “counseling.” Court records show that McWilliams enticed three minor victims to send sexually explicit photographs and videos, sometimes threatening to expose embarrassing information that McWilliams already knew about the victims if they did not send such images. When some victims refused to send additional images, McWilliams followed through on his threats and sent sexually explicit photographs to the victims’ mothers.
In addition, court documents state that McWilliams used the social networking website Grindr.com to make contact with a minor victim for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex. McWilliams then enticed this minor victim to identify another minor victim with whom McWilliams could engage in commercial sex acts. McWilliams met the victims on multiple occasions for the purpose of engaging in sex acts in exchange for money and alcohol.
On December 4, 2019, law enforcement officials executed a search warrant at McWilliams’ living quarters in Strongsville. During the search, officers seized a laptop and an external hard drive that contained hundreds of images and videos of child pornography. Further investigation revealed McWilliams had a Dropbox cloud storage account where he stored more than 128,000 images of child pornography. McWilliams downloaded these image files from the internet and stored them in various folders on his computer devices.
This case was investigated by the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations and Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (“ICAC”) Task Force. James Flaiz, the Geauga County Prosecutor, is an assigned Special Assistant U.S. Attorney on this matter. This case was prosecuted by Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan and Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol M. Skutnik.