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Editor’s Note: Some details in this story are disturbing.

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) – A federal judge sentenced a priest with the Cleveland Catholic Diocese to life in prison Tuesday after he was previously convicted of sex trafficking and child pornography.

Robert McWilliams pleaded guilty to child sex charges in July.

According to court documents, McWilliams preyed on minor victims, many connected to churches he was associated with from 2017 until 2019 when he was arrested.

McWilliams was a seminarian with St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Newbury Township and Parochial Vicar of Saint Joseph Catholic Church in Strongsville.

Reverend Robert D McWilliams

Two families from St. Helen’s filed a report in Geauga County in 2019 saying their minor sons were being extorted online.

Geauga County investigators tracked messages from the children back to McWilliams, documents state.

When members of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) executed a search warrant at McWilliams’ St. Joseph living quarters, court documents show they found sexually explicit images of the victims who came forward, videos of children as young as toddlers being raped, and evidence that McWilliams also paid teenage boys for sex.  

Prosecutors say McWilliams lured male victims by posing as a teenage girl online, then blackmailed the victims and threatened to expose them unless they continued to send more nude photos and videos.

During the sentencing, McWilliams read a letter to the court that he had written to a victim, describing his remorse, while asking for a sentence under 20 years so he could be close to his mother:

“For the past 23 months, I have been ashamed and sorrowful for my actions and my sins,” he said. “Not a day goes by when I don’t regret the way I treated you and how you feel. All I have to offer you now are my prayers and my apology. I pray your faith in God and in the church will be healed. It doesn’t minimize (the damage), but I trust God will heal you. To all those who have lost their faith at all please note this was not the church or the priesthood, this was my fault, my sins.”

Five minors between the ages of 9 and 17 are mentioned in the court documents.

The charges include:

  • (Count 1) Sex trafficking of a minor (age 15 to 16)
  • (Count 2) Sex trafficking of a minor (age 13)
  • (Count 3) Sexual exploitation of children (age 15)
  • (Count 4) Sexual exploitation of children (age 17 to 18)
  • (Count 5) Sexual exploitation of children (age 9 to 11)
  • (Count 6) Transportation of child pornography
  • (Count 7) Receipt and distribution of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct
  • (Count 8) Possession of child pornography

Prosecutors asked for a precedent-setting punishment, with no less than 40 years in prison.

In a defendant’s sentencing memorandum, McWilliams’ representation asked for 15 years in prison and supervised release.

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese says it is pursuing the removal of McWilliams from the clerical state and praying for the victims. They released the following statement Tuesday after the sentencing:

“Today, with the sentencing of Robert McWilliams, let us once again, as a family of faith, offer prayers for all those impacted by his reprehensible actions and ask our loving Father to heal any and all wounds they have suffered. We also thank those in law enforcement and the judicial system who worked so hard to ensure that justice was served and that McWilliams’ wrongdoing was justly punished. Finally, let us offer our support and thanks to all the good priests of the Diocese of Cleveland who faithfully live out their promises each day in service to God’s people. For its part, the diocese continues to actively pursue the removal of McWilliams from the clerical state.