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3News Investigates: Feds say former Strongsville priest used confession to exploit teen boys for photos

Rev. Robert McWilliams could get life in prison when sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court.

STRONGSVILLE, Ohio — Editor's note: Video in the player at the top of this story was originally published in July 2021.

A former Strongsville priest took the confessions of teenaged boys and then used the sins to extort sexually explicit photos, federal prosecutors allege in new details contained in court papers.

For his sins, Rev. Robert McWilliams should spend at least 40 years in prison, prosecutors said in a memorandum filed in U.S. District Court in Akron ahead of the priest’s sentencing set for Tuesday before Judge Sara Lioi.

McWilliams, 41, pleaded guilty to eight counts involving exploitation of children and pornography in July.

In a 26-page sentencing memorandum, acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan, for the first time provided the public with the full scope of McWilliams’ crimes against several Northeast Ohio teenaged boys he was entrusted to counsel.

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Prosecutors say McWilliams extorted some teens, using embarrassing or personal information he obtained during confession, a Catholic sacrament in which believers confess sins in order to receive atonement.

“He is a consumer of child pornography and an extortionist who violated the sacrament of confession to obtain information he later used, under aliases, to seek the production of sexually explicit material from boys he was ‘counseling’ and a juvenile sex trafficker,” Brennan wrote.

McWilliams’ attorney, Robert Dixon, filed his recommendation Wednesday, seeking a 15-year sentence, with significant parole supervision.

“Robert McWilliams is a good candidate for rehabilitation through therapy -- and he will have ample time to engage in therapy while incarcerated,” Dixon wrote. “Moreover, a lengthy sentence, combined with the ample opportunity for sex offender treatment while incarcerated for this extended period, will adequately protect the public and provide for rehabilitation.”

RELATED: Strongsville priest pleads guilty to sex trafficking, child pornography charges; diocese plans to 'defrock' him

Prosecutors say an investigation found reams of child pornography, including hundreds of videos depicting young boys engaged in sex as well as sexually explicit photos of the boys he came to know through his ministry work.

The extent and McWilliams' actions require a lengthy sentence, Brennan said.

“The Court has the opportunity to bring security to the community-both here in Cleveland and in the larger community on the internet-by ensuring that children do not have to worry about being targeted by a predator such as McWilliams for a very long time,” Brennan wrote.

Brennan said a long sentence could “provide the victims and their families with closure by imposing a punishment that assures [McWilliams] will not harm them again."

Prosecutors say McWilliams led the “quintessential double life professing the tenants of Christianity in public while using fake identities and technology to conceal his sexual attraction to minors.”

McWilliams had a normal upbringing in Akron and was never sexually assaulted as a child. But for years, he sexually exploited boys ranging in age from 9 to 18, including after he was ordained a priest in 2017.

RELATED: Federal grand jury returns 8-count indictment against Strongsville priest in child pornography, sex trafficking case

Editor's note: Video in the player above was originally published when McWilliams was arrested in December of 2019.

He met victims at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Newbury Township and later at St. Joseph’s in Strongsville, where he was associated with the church’s youth programs. He became close to the families and was often invited to their homes.

Two families complained to Geauga County sheriff’s deputies in 2019 after their teenaged sons were extorted online for sexually explicit images of themselves. That led to a raid on St. Joseph’s rectory on Dec. 4, 2019, where McWilliams lived and worked.

Seized during the raid were two lap tops, a disc drive, a tablet and cell phone, all of which contained various images, e-mails and videos depicting child pornography.

Images of the teens he counseled were also found in computer files marked as “Yaaaas” and mixed along work-related files labeled “Homilies and Reflections” and “Psalm Bible Studies.”

Under federal sentencing guidelines, McWilliams could receive a life sentence. Prosecutors are recommending no less than 40 years.

“The lives of child pornography victims are forever changed in the most profound ways,” Brennan said. “And [McWilliams’] life should be changed as well-by spending time behind bars for a sentence commensurate with the harm these victims have suffered and will continue to suffer for the rest of their lives.”