Preliminary hearing set for Jan. 15
So, in our case, we actually have a live victim, who lives here in Geauga County, and this isn’t simply downloading from file sharing, what Cuyahoga County has, our charge is much more serious circumstances.” – Jim Flaiz
Bond was set at $150,000 for the former St. Helen Catholic Church seminarian accused of soliciting a nude photograph from a teenager.
Rev. Robert B. McWilliams pleaded not guilty in Chardon Municipal Court Wednesday morning to one count of sexual performance on a minor, a second-degree felony, punishable by fine and a maximum sentence of two to eight years in prison, with the potential for more time.
If convicted, McWilliams, 39, also would be subject to mandatory registration as a sexual offender.
He remains jailed at the Geauga County Safety Center.
Additional felony charges are expected after the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office presents evidence to a grand jury within the next 60 days.
County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz said at Wednesday’s hearing prosecutors have substantial evidence in the case, which he said is different and more serious than the charges pending against McWilliams in Cuyahoga County.
“The Cuyahoga County charges stem from the mere possession of child pornography,” Flaiz told Judge Terri Stupica. “The charge here, the underlying facts are that the defendant solicited a photo from an underage victim. So, in our case, we actually have a live victim, who lives here in Geauga County, and this isn’t simply downloading from file sharing — (which is) what Cuyahoga County has — our charge is much more serious circumstances.”
As a result, Flaiz argued a higher bond was appropriate.
“Additionally, we have significant evidence — which is a bond condition — and I would also tell the court that, unlike the Cuyahoga County case, that was the first instance of him being charged, now he has charges pending in two different counties and our investigation shows there may be additional charges in other jurisdictions, as a potential out there,” he said.
Flaiz requested a $150,000 cash or surety bond, with conditions including no contact with the alleged victim or his family; that McWilliams not be permitted to enter Geauga County except for court appearances; that he be outfitted with GPS monitoring at his cost, if he does post bond; that McWilliams not be permitted to have any electronic devices or be on social media; and that he not have any contact with anyone under the age of 18.
Geauga County Public Defender Robert Umholtz asked Stupica for a lower bond, noting Cuyahoga County — where McWilliams currently is facing significantly more counts of child pornography — set bond at 10 percent of $50,000.
While Stupica acknowledged McWilliams is facing more counts in Cuyahoga County at this time, she said the Geauga County case involves a real victim and explained in sexual offense cases, bond must be set to “secure the safety of the community.”
She then set bond at $150,000 cash or surety and adopted the bond conditions Flaiz requested.
Umholtz asked the judge if McWilliams could be permitted to have contact with an 11-year-old niece in the event he is able to post bond.
“No contact means no contact, even for family members,” retorted Stupica.
McWilliams’ next court appearance is set for 10:30 a.m. Jan. 15.
McWilliams was arrested Dec. 5 at St. Joseph Parish in Strongsville on charges of possessing child pornography after agents with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force raided his living space and office. The underlying search warrant was obtained by the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office and sheriff’s deputies.
During the search, officers seized electronic devices, including a cellphone, iPad and laptop associated with McWilliams. Investigators discovered images of child pornography and charged McWilliams in Cuyahoga County. That case also has not been presented yet to a grand jury.
The Cleveland Catholic Diocese placed McWilliams on administrative leave following his arrest.
Flaiz previously told the Maple Leaf the investigation started with allegations McWilliams had sent an inappropriate text to a teenager at St. Helen’s Church. That investigation eventually grew to involve ICAC agents and City of Strongsville police.
According to the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, McWilliams served at St. Helen as a seminarian from September 2014 to May 2015. It was considered an internship.
In that capacity, McWilliams served the Life Teen Mass on Sundays at 5 p.m. and took part in the youth activities following the service. He also was actively involved in St. Helen School.
After he was ordained in 2017, McWilliams was assigned to St. Joseph parish in Strongsville as a vicar — a priest who is not the pastor. He occasionally would fill in for St. Helen pastor Jay McPhillips when he was away on vacation.
McWilliams’ attorney in the Cuyahoga County case successfully petitioned the Eighth District Court of Appeals to lower McWilliams’ bond to 10 percent of $50,000. His mother posted the bond on Jan. 2, according to court records.
That same day, Flaiz filed a complaint in Chardon Municipal Court charging McWilliams with one count of pandering obscenity involving a minor. Stupica also issued an arrest warrant, keeping McWilliams jailed in Cuyahoga County until sheriff’s deputies could bring him to Geauga County.
“We found out about that New Year’s Eve,” Flaiz told the Geauga County Maple Leaf Tuesday. “We had some concerns about his availability given the nature of the charges that we expect in Geauga County, and the charges that he is facing in Cuyahoga, so we made the decision to issue a warrant on our case on Dec. 31.”