Former Saint Helena priest and seminarian sentenced to life in prison


A former seminarian at the Saint Helena Catholic Church who used information gathered in a confession to blackmail underage male victims into sending him inappropriate photographs was sentenced to life in prison on November 9, after being sentenced to life imprisonment. pleaded guilty to federal charges of child trafficking, child abuse and exploitation. .

A former seminarian at the Saint Helena Catholic Church who used information gathered in a confession to blackmail underage male victims into sending him inappropriate photographs was sentenced to life in prison on November 9, after being sentenced to life imprisonment. pleaded guilty to federal charges of child trafficking, child abuse and exploitation. .

Robert McWilliams, 41, was ordained a priest in 2017. He was arrested in 2019 and pleaded guilty in July to two counts of child sex trafficking, three counts of child sexual exploitation and one count each. transporting child pornography, receiving and distributing a visual representation of a minor engaging in sexually explicit behavior and in possession of child pornography.

Judge Sara Lioi, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, sentenced McWilliams.

“This defendant has raped and exploited children in almost every way imaginable,” acting US lawyer Bridget M. Brennan said. “Using his role in the church, Mr. McWilliams violated the sacrament of confession to identify potential victims and offered religious advice to victims he extorted under alter egos he intentionally created to cover up its own identity. He has also used social media to target and lure young children into the world of child sex trafficking exploitation, all after having already amassed a vast collection of violent child pornography.

Geauga County District Attorney Jim Flaiz, who was a special assistant to the US prosecutor in the case, said Lioi imposed an appropriate sentence.

“I would like to thank the US attorney’s office for working with us on this investigation,” added Flaiz, whose office obtained the initial search warrant that led to McWilliams’ arrest.

With McWilliams’ conviction, Bishop Edward C. Malesic of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland prayed “for all who have been touched by his wrongdoing and asked our loving Father to heal all the wounds they have suffered” .

“We also thank the law enforcement and judicial system who have worked so hard to ensure that justice is served and that McWilliams’ wrongdoing is fairly punished,” Malesic said.

He added: “Finally, let us offer our support and thanks to all the good priests of the Diocese of Cleveland who faithfully live their promises every day in the service of the people of God. For its part, the diocese continues to actively pursue the withdrawal of McWilliams from the clerical state. “

McWilliams was arrested on December 5, 2019 at St. Joseph’s Parish in Strongsville after officers from the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force raided his living space and office.

During the search, officers seized electronic devices, including a cell phone, iPad, laptop, and an external hard drive associated with McWilliams. Investigators have uncovered hundreds of images and videos of child pornography, according to court documents.

Further investigation revealed that McWilliams had a Dropbox cloud storage account where he stored over 128,000 images of child pornography. He downloaded these image files from the Internet and stored them in various folders on his computer devices.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland placed McWilliams on administrative leave after his arrest.

McWilliams was charged with crimes in Cuyahoga and Geauga counties, but those cases were dropped after charges were filed in federal court on February 21, 2020.

The investigation began with allegations that McWilliams sent an inappropriate text message to a teenager at St. Helen’s Church. This investigation ended up involving ICAC officers and the police from the town of Strongsville.

According to the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, McWilliams served in St. Helen as a seminarian from September 2014 to May 2015. It was considered an internship.

In this capacity, McWilliams served Life Teen Mass on Sundays at 5 p.m. and participated in after-service youth activities. He was also actively involved in St. Helen’s School.

After being ordained a priest in 2017, McWilliams was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Strongsville as vicar – a priest who is not the pastor. He sometimes replaced St. Helen’s pastor Jay McPhillips when he was on vacation.

According to court documents, McWilliams used false identities and technology to extort minors for sexually explicit images, amass a large collection of child pornography and provide compensation to minors in exchange for sex acts. He met some of the victims – the families of at least three of them were parishioners in St. Helen – while in seminary with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and as appointed parish vicar in a parish where some of the children and their families were affiliated.

McWilliams used the sacrament of confession to elicit information he later exploited, creating pseudonyms, including posing as underage women, to demand the production of sexually explicit material from minors that he “ advised, ”court records showed.

McWilliams instigated three underage victims to send sexually explicit photographs and videos, sometimes threatening to expose embarrassing information 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 photos to the mothers of the victims.

Court documents also indicated that McWilliams used the social networking app Grindr to contact an underage victim for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex. He then instigated this underage victim to identify another underage victim with whom McWilliams could engage in commercial sex acts. McWilliams met the victims on several occasions with the aim of engaging in sexual acts in exchange for money and alcohol.

“We commend the victims and their families for their courage,” said Brennan. “We also thank Homeland Security Investigations, the Geauga County District Attorney’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. “


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