UPDATE: Former St. Helen Seminarian Intern Faces Child Pornography Charges in Cuyahoga County
December 10, 2019 by John Karlovec

Rev. Robert McWilliams arrested Dec. 5 at St. Joseph Church in Strongsville

“My office’s forensic computer investigator is going to be performing an analysis of all the items seized during the execution of the search warrant last week. Then, we will be in a position to present the case to the grand jury.” – Jim Flaiz

Update: This story has been updated with information from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland to correct the time period McWilliams interned at St. Helen Church and to clarify what St. Helen Catholic Church Rev. Jay McPhillips told parishioners at last Sunday’s mass about not gossiping or speculating on the matter and to contact law enforcement if they or anyone they know were victimized by McWilliams. 

A Catholic priest who once worked with the youth program at St. Helen Catholic Church in Newbury Township and is believed to have committed crimes in Geauga County was arrested Dec. 5 in Cuyahoga County on charges of possessing child pornography.

Agents took St. Joseph Catholic Church Rev. Robert McWilliams into custody last Thursday at the church in Strongsville.

The criminal complaint filed in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court charges the 39-year-old McWilliams with four counts of possessing child pornography and one count of possessing criminal tools. The charges include crimes that happened between April 2016 through Dec. 5, 2019, according to court records.

McWilliams made his initial appearance in court Monday morning before Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Sherrie Miday. She set his bond at $50,000 — McWilliams had been held in the Cuyahoga County Jail on a $100,000 cash bond since his arrest — and ordered him to wear a GPS-monitored ankle bracelet if he posts 10 percent of the bond.

Miday also appointed defense attorney Robert Dixon to represent McWilliams in the case, which will now be bound over to the Cuyahoga County grand jury.

Agents with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force raided McWilliams’ living space and office Dec. 5 at St. Joseph Church, according to a statement from the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. The diocese said the officers were searching for “possible crimes committed in Geauga County.”

The officers seized electronic devices, including a cellphone, iPad and laptop associated with McWilliams, the diocese said.

The Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is led by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.

The search warrant was obtained by the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office and sheriff’s office deputies.

County Prosecutor James Flaiz told the Geauga County 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.

“Our office, working with the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office, has been investigating some inappropriate electronic contact with teens,” Flaiz said. “My office’s forensic computer investigator is going to be performing an analysis of all the items seized during the execution of the search warrant last week. Then, we will be in a position to present the case to the grand jury.”

Flaiz explained the Cuyahoga County case is a separate case for child pornography discovered when the raid was conducted in Strongsville and, therefore, Williams was charged with possession of child pornography there.

“Our investigation is still ongoing,” Flaiz added. “Sheriff Hildenbrand and I have been in constant communication with parish leadership and they have been cooperative and helpful in our investigation.”

McWilliams served at St. Helen as a seminarian in 2016, according to a parish member familiar with McWilliams’ work at the church. It was considered an internship.

In that capacity, he served the Life Teen Mass on Sundays at 5 p.m. and took part in the youth activities following the service, the member said, adding McWilliams 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, the member said.

McPhillips had not return a telephone call seeking comment as of publication of this story online.

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.

McPhillips did not return a telephone call seeking comment on this matter, but the diocese asked all questions be directed to them.

A St. Helen official, who asked not to be identified, told the Maple Leaf, “Father Jay (McPhillips) had asked us Sunday at all the masses not to talk to anybody about this.”

The official added, “Father McWilliams made a positive impact on our parish when he was here, which makes it doubly hard to hear this news. Naturally, the people at St. Helen’s are devastated. Other than that, I must respect Father Jay’s wishes.”

The diocese clarified the official’s account of McPhillips’ homily at Sunday mass. According to the transcript of McPhillips’ homily, McPhillips told parishioners not to gossip or speculate about the matter. He also told parishioners if they were victimized or knew of any victims, to  contact local law enforcement and come forward.

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

“We wanted to make you aware as quickly as possible that law enforcement associated with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) arrived at the parish this morning with a warrant to search Fr. Bob McWilliams’ living and office spaces for items related to possible crimes committed in Geauga County,” school principal Joseph Akosi said in a statement sent to the St. Joseph parish, as reported by cleveland.com. “Law enforcement conducted its search and seized various electronic devices, including laptop computers, a cell phone and an iPad associated with or belonging to Fr. McWilliams. As a result of ICAC’s search, Fr. McWilliams was taken into custody. We know little else at this time and will share any additional information that we obtain with you as we are able. I have informed the diocese of what occurred and the diocese has placed Fr. McWilliams on administrative leave pending the outcome of this matter.”

Added Akosi, “Please know that the welfare of children, and in particular the children in our care here at Sts. Joseph & John School and St. Joseph parish, is our highest priority and that we will cooperate in any way we can with law enforcement in this matter.”

Last Friday, Roman Catholic Bishop of Cleveland Nelson J. Perez released a statement on the matter.

Perez, who is currently in Rome for required regular pastoral meetings with Pope Francis, called the accusations against McWilliams “devastating and heart-wrenching for the entire Catholic community in Northeast Ohio.”

“All of us feel tremendous emotions of shock, disappointment and confusion,” Perez said, vowing to fully cooperate with investigators in the name of “the safety and well-being of our children.”

On Monday, the support group Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests called on the diocese to release all of McWilliams’ prior positions and determine whether or not he harmed any parishioners.

“Child pornography is a devastating crime that can lead to a lifetime of victimization,” SNAP’s statement, posted on its website, said. “Now Catholic officials in the diocese of Cleveland must immediately call upon any victims, witnesses or whistleblowers to come forward to law enforcement with information that will aid in the investigation. Rev. McWilliams’ complete work history must also be publicized and reviewed, with an eye to uncovering whether any children were victimized at any of his posts.”

The group also called on Perez to release the findings of the “secret grand jury investigation into his diocese.”

“The only way to protect children is to be completely transparent,” SNAP’s statement concluded.