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Priest gets life term in child porn, exploitation case

The Rev. Robert McWilliams was sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Akron in front of an overflow gallery filled with the family of three victims.

The Rev. Robert McWilliams in court in Ohio. Video screengrab via Youtube/Fox 8 News Cleveland

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — A Cleveland-area Roman Catholic priest has been sentenced to life in prison on convictions of child pornography and exploitation.

The Rev. Robert McWilliams was sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Akron in front of an overflow gallery filled with the family of three victims. McWilliams, 41, previously pleaded guilty to eight counts involving exploitation of children and pornography.

U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi said the public needed to be protected from McWilliams, saying he preyed upon youths who sought his help. McWilliams became a priest in May 2017 and was a parochial vicar at the church’s school. He was arrested in December 2019 at his church in Strongsville, Ohio.

Prosecutors alleged in court documents that he had tens of thousands of pornographic images, some depicting very young children. Authorities also alleged that he forced teenage boys to provide him with sexually explicit images and paid two boys below the age of 18 for sex acts.

During sentencing, McWilliams read a letter he said he had written to a victim saying for almost two years he had been “ashamed and sorrowful for my actions and my sins.”

“All I have to offer you now are my prayers and my apology,” he said. “I pray your faith in god and in the church will be healed. It doesn’t minimize (the damage), but I trust God will heal you. To all those who have lost their faith at all please note this was not the church or the priesthood, this was my fault, my sins.”

McWilliams asked for a sentence under 20 years so he could be close to his mother. Defense attorney Robert Dixon sought a 15-year term with significant parole supervision, calling his client “a good candidate for rehabilitation through therapy.”

The Diocese of Cleveland issued a statement seeking prayers for all affected by the defendant’s “reprehensible actions” and said it “continues to actively pursue (his) removal … from the clerical state.” The diocese also called for support for its “good priests … who faithfully live out their promises each day in service to God’s people.”