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Parish meetings share information, help begin healing process after priest’s arrest

News of the Diocese

December 12, 2019

Officials from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, St. Joseph Parish (Strongsville) and St. Helen Parish (Newbury) collaborated with law enforcement the evenings of Dec. 10-11 to share information, answer questions and provide resources to St. Joseph and St. Helen parishioners and families of Sts. Joseph & John School in the wake of last week’s arrest of Father Robert McWilliams, a priest with ties to both parishes and the school. McWilliams was charged with possession of child pornography.

Father Dan Schlegel, Secretary and Vicar for Clergy and Religious, and Sister Rita Mary Harwood, Secretary of the Parish Life and Development Secretariat, who were presenters at both meetings, said they hope the meetings and prayer will help the healing process to begin. Much of the meeting time was devoted to answering questions from attendees.

During the meetings, they described the extensive screening and education the diocese requires in order to create a safe environment for children in the parishes and schools in the diocese. Click HERE to learn more about the diocesan policy for the safety of children in matters of sex abuse and click HERE for the diocesan standards of conduct for ministry.

Presenters encouraged anyone with information about the case or any other potential victims to speak with law enforcement. The diocesan victim assistance coordinator, counselors and other resources are available to help anyone in need.

Parents in attendance also were encouraged to have age-appropriate discussions with their children about the situation and to monitor the electronic devices used by their children for any improper content or contact. McWilliams is believed to have used social media to connect with young people.

Attendees at the meeting learned that every seminarian undergoes an extensive battery of screenings throughout formation – including background checks with fingerprints, credit checks and numerous psychological screenings from outside professionals. Additional input is received from seminary staff, clergy mentors and lay people throughout each seminarian’s formation. A seminarian can be discharged at any point if there is any question that he is not suitable for ministry.

McWilliams, 39, was arrested Dec. 5 at St. Joseph Parish by law enforcement officers associated with the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. After an initial court appearance on Dec. 9, he remains in Cuyahoga County Jail under $50,000 bond. If he posts bond, McWilliams would be released with a GPS-monitored ankle bracelet.

McWilliams is charged with possessing child pornography and possession of criminal tools. The case was referred to a Cuyahoga County grand jury, which will decide whether or not to indict him. Currently, he is facing charges only in Cuyahoga County but the Geauga County prosecutor said their investigation is ongoing and he could face additional charges there in early 2020.

As a seminarian, McWilliams served as an intern at St. Helen working with young people in the youth ministry program prior to his ordination as a priest in 2017. Since his ordination, he has served as parochial vicar at St. Joseph.

McWilliams was placed on administrative leave immediately after the diocese learned of his arrest. As a consequence, he is not permitted to be on any diocesan or parish property or at any diocesan or parish event. Also, he no longer receives a salary from the parish. McWilliams’ legal fees and bond are his sole responsibility.

Bishop Nelson Perez has been in Rome since last week with other bishops from Michigan and Ohio for their regularly scheduled ad limina visit with the Holy Father. However, the bishop issued a statement from Rome as soon as he learned of McWilliams’ arrest.

“It is with great sadness that we learned of the recent events surrounding the arrest of Father Robert McWilliams. This has been devastating and heart-wrenching for the entire Catholic community in Northeast Ohio. All of us feel tremendous emotions of shock, disappointment and confusion,” he said.

“Please know that we stand ready to cooperate with law enforcement in this matter. I am deeply committed, as the shepherd of our diocese, to the safety and well-being of our children.”

Read the bishop’s entire statement HERE.

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