Robert McWilliams, 41, of Strongsville, pleaded guilty in federal court July 16 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, said Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan in a statement.
McWilliams — who served at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Newbury as a seminarian from September 2014 to May 2015 and was actively involved in St. Helen School — solicited sexually explicit images of minors online and engaged in sexual acts with minor victims in exchange for alcohol and other things of value beginning in 2017 and continuing to 2019, according to court documents, which said McWilliams knew some of the victims through his time in the seminary with the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland at St. Helen’s where the children and their families were affiliated.
On Dec. 5, 2019, Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force officers raided McWilliams’ living space and office in the rectory at St. Joseph Church, in Strongsville, where he was assigned, on a search warrant out of Geauga County. They seized electronic devices, including a cellphone, iPad and laptop associated with McWilliams.
Officers found additional images of child pornography on the devices that were not connected to the Geauga County investigation, which led to the charges in Cuyahoga County.
McWilliams used multiple fake personas, including a teenage girl, and several social media mobile applications to contact his minor victims, Brennan said in the statement, adding McWilliams, posing as a female, enticed three minor victims to send sexually explicit photographs and videos, sometimes threatening to expose embarrassing information 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.
In addition, McWilliams used the social networking website Grindr.com 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 he could engage in commercial sex acts, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which said McWilliams met the victims on multiple occasions for the purpose of engaging in sex acts in exchange for money and alcohol.
Court documents showed McWilliams was also in possession of an HP laptop computer and an external hard drive that contained hundreds of images and videos of child pornography. Further investigation revealed he had a Dropbox cloud storage account where he stored approximately 150 image and video files of child pornography. McWilliams downloaded these image files from the internet and stored them in various folders on his computer devices.
McWilliams is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 9 and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
This case was investigated by the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations and Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz is an assigned Special Assistant U.S. Attorney on the case, which is being prosecuted by Brennan and Assistant U.S. Attorney Carol M. Skutnik.