Parish priest Michael Zacharias, 56, was convicted on five counts of sex trafficking by a federal jury in the Northern District of Ohio last Friday.

Zacharias has been on administrative leave from the Diocese of Toledo since he was arrested on Aug. 18, 2020. His crimes, committed between 1999 to 2020, involved three victims, two of whom were still minors when Zacharias began abusing them.

The former pastor now faces a minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum of life in prison.

His sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.

According to court documents, Zacharias used psychological coercion, threats, and money to force his underage and adult victims to perform sexual acts with him. The two underage victims told investigators that they were addicted to drugs and needed the money.

Zacharias was ordained a priest in 2002 and was the pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Findlay, Ohio, at the time of his arrest, according to a 2020 Diocese of Toledo release.

He began grooming some of his underage victims while still a seminarian at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Toledo, according to a Friday statement by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Diocese of Toledo released a response after Zacharias’ conviction, announcing the path was now clear to begin canonical proceedings and explaining that the Holy See will make the final determination on whether Zacharias will be laicized — that is, removed from the priesthood.

“With the conclusion of the federal trial and the conviction of Zacharias, the diocese is now free to address this matter according to Canon [Church] law,” the diocesan statement said. “The case will be presented to the Holy See, who will make the final judgment, which will lead to a determination of his status as a priest.”

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Kelly Donaghy, senior director of communications at the Diocese of Toledo, told CNA that “the canonical work to send the case to the Holy See is already underway.”

Though he has not been formally removed from the priesthood, Donaghy explained that Zacharias has been barred from priestly ministry since his arrest. 

“Zacharias has been on administrative leave since his arrest in August of 2020,” Donaghy said. “In accordance with the Policy for the Protection of Minors and Young People, while on administrative leave, Rev. Zacharias cannot exercise public priestly ministry, administer any of the sacraments, wear clerical attire, or present himself as a priest.”

In the diocesan statement, Bishop Daniel Thomas of Toledo responded to the conviction, calling Zacharias’ actions “reprehensible, morally deplorable, and manifestly contrary to the dignity due to each human person and the dignity of the priesthood.”

“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,” Thomas said. “Our society and Church together must bring evil into the light, wherever it is found.”

Kristen Clarke, the DOJ’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, stated in the DOJ’s Friday release that Zacharias “betrayed the victims in the most inhumane way. He robbed them of their childhood, their dignity, and their faith.”