Former Northeast Ohio priest pleads guilty to child sex crimes, faces maximum of life in prison

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) – Former Cleveland Catholic Diocese priest Robert McWilliams pleaded guilty Friday to child sex charges.

The 41-year-old pleaded guilty in federal court to the following: 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.

Robert McWilliams

He initially entered a not guilty plea, then filed an intent to enter a guilty plea earlier this month.

The Strongsville priest was indicted on 8 counts following his arrest in December of 2019.

The charges include:

  • (Count 1) Sex trafficking of a minor
  • (Count 2) Sex trafficking of a minor
  • (Count 3) Sexual exploitation of children
  • (Count 4) Sexual exploitation of children
  • (Count 5) Sexual exploitation of children
  • (Count 6) Transportation of child pornography
  • (Count 7) Receipt and distribution of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct
  • (Count 8) Possession of child pornography

The indictment states that McWilliams solicited a minor to engage in a “commercial sex act.”

That’s dated March of 2018 through October of 2019.

The second charge refers to a minor under the age of 14.

Robert McWilliams
Robert McWilliams

The indictment says McWilliams also solicited the child to engage in a commercial sex act.

That case is listed from March of 2018 through January 2019.

At least 5 minor victims are outlined in the indictment.

Prosecutors say McWilliams pretended to be a female online and would reach out to make contact with minor male victims.

Allegedly, he knew some of the victims because he served as a priest in parishes where these children and their families were affiliated.

Father Robert McWilliams

McWilliams allegedly enticed the minors to send sexually explicit photos and videos.

McWilliams is alleged to have threatened to send the photos to family and friends of the victims if they did not send him more, and authorities said, in some cases, he followed through on his threats, sending the photos to the victims’ mothers.

According to a press release, McWilliams used the social networking site Grindr.com to make contact with a minor victim for the purpose of “engaging in a commercial sex act.” He’s then accused of enticing the victim to identify another minor victim with whom he 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, the release stated.” The Dept. of Justice said McWilliams was in possession of an HP laptop computer and an external hard drive that had hundreds of images and videos of child pornography on it.

McWilliams will be sentenced in November. He faces a maximum of life in prison.

The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland released the statement, below, in response to McWilliams’ guilty plea:

  We are grateful to the law enforcement agencies and prosecutors for diligently seeking justice in this matter.  Furthermore, with the resolution of the criminal charges against McWilliams, the Diocese is now able to pursue the removal of McWilliams from the clerical state.  Let us pray for healing for all those who have experienced sexual abuse.  

The Diocese of Cleveland is committed to creating a safe environment for children and fostering healing for those who have experienced abuse.

The Diocese said anyone with information or simply in need of help can reach the diocesan confidential response line by phone at 216-334-2999 or online at response_services@dioceseofcleveland.org.

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