Former Priest, St. Helen’s Seminarian Sentenced to Life in Prison
November 20, 2021

A former seminarian at St. Helen Roman Catholic Church who used information gained within confessions to blackmail underage male victims into sending him inappropriate photographs was sentenced to life in prison Nov. 9, after pleading guilty to federal child trafficking, child abuse and child exploitation charges.

A former seminarian at St. Helen Roman Catholic Church who used information gained within confessions to blackmail underage male victims into sending him inappropriate photographs was sentenced to life in prison Nov. 9, after pleading guilty to federal child trafficking, child abuse and child exploitation charges.

Robert McWilliams, 41, was ordained a priest in 2017. He was arrested in 2019 and pleaded guilty in July to 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.

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

“This defendant violated and exploited children in nearly every manner imaginable,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan. “Using his role in the church, Mr. McWilliams violated the sacrament of confession to identify potential victims, and offered religious counseling to victims he extorted under alter egos he intentionally created to conceal his own identity. He also used social media to target and entice young children into the exploitive world of juvenile sex trafficking, all after having already amassed a large collection of violent child pornography.”

Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, who was an assigned Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the case, said Lioi imposed an appropriate sentence.

“I want to thank the U.S. 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’ sentencing, Bishop Edward C. Malesic of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland offered 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,” 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 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.”

McWilliams was arrested Dec. 5, 2019, at St. Joseph Parish in Strongsville after agents with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force raided his living space and office.

During the search, officers seized electronic devices, including a cellphone, iPad, laptop and an external hard drive associated with McWilliams. Investigators discovered hundreds of images and videos of child pornography, court documents showed.

Further investigation revealed McWilliams had a Dropbox cloud storage account where he stored more than 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 Cleveland Catholic Diocese placed McWilliams on administrative leave following his arrest.

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

The investigation began with allegations McWilliams had sent an inappropriate text to a teenager at St. Helen 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.

According to court documents, McWilliams used fake identities and technology to extort minors for sexually explicit images, amass a significant collection of child pornography and provide compensation to minors in exchange for sexual acts. He met some of the victims — the families of at least three of whom were parishioners at St. Helen — through his time in the seminary with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland and as an appointed parochial vicar at a parish where some of the children and their families were affiliated.

McWilliams used the sacrament of confession to obtain information that he later exploited, by creating aliases, including posing as minor females, to seek the production of sexually explicit material from minors that he was “counseling,” court records showed.

McWilliams enticed three minor victims to send sexually explicit photographs and videos, sometimes threatening to expose embarrassing information that 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 photographs to the victims’ mothers.

Court documents also indicated McWilliams used the social networking app Grindr to make contact with a minor victim for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex. He then enticed this minor victim to identify another minor victim with whom McWilliams 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.

“We commend the victims and their families for the courage they have shown,” Brennan said. “We are also thankful to Homeland Security Investigations, the Geauga County Prosecutor’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.”