How an internet crime unit led to the arrest of a Northeast Ohio priest accused in a child porn case

ICAC works day and night to track down those who lure children.

Priest Arrested in Child Porn Bust

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - How do investigators track down people who try to lure children online?

We got a tour of the nerve center of The Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) and its efforts to stop crimes against children before they happen, which appears to be exactly what happened in the case of Rev. Robert D. McWilliams.

Rev. Robert D. McWilliams, a Catholic priest working in Strongsville, was placed on leave by the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, after he was handcuffed and charged Dec. 5, 2019 for child pornography, a felony.

ICAC arrived at St. Joseph Parish Thursday and searched McWilliams’ living and office spaces for evidence related to crimes that were allegedly committed in Geauga County.

Most Reverend Nelson Perez, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland issued a statement Friday on the matter.

“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... 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.”

Laptops, a cell phone and an iPad were seized during the search.

Priest Arrested in Child Porn Bust

“We have individuals that are constantly chatting on the internet, trying to bring these type of individuals out of the weeds and place them under arrest,” said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley in explaining how ICAC got on the case.

It was a tip from another agency that needed their expertise.

The defendant both sent and received child pornography through social media and was very active in doing so, the prosecutor’s office said.

The Geauga County Sheriff’s Office and prosecutor’s offices were investigating a complaint.

They followed those leads and it led to yesterday’s arrest, said O’Malley.

The local ICAC unit is the largest in the country -- 366 agencies participate.

As we saw in our visit to their rarely-seen command post, when an investigator puts out a post posing as a child, explicit results come back in seconds from around Ohio and around the country.

“The people they are trying to corrupt and abuse are children and which is why that unit is so valuable to the people of the county,” the prosecutor noted.

Details of the McWilliams case are not complete.

“We have no knowledge at this time of any prior complaints about this individual and we are not aware that the diocese were aware of any prior crimes either,” stated the prosecutor’s office. “We have no reason to believe that his move from Geauga to Strongsville was due to any previous similar incidents. However, the investigation remains ongoing and certainly everything is on the table, including additional charges if they are warranted.”

The investigation continues.

However, court documents list occasions of inappropriate messages sent since 2016.

One important question remains unanswered: Was McWilliams just sending images or was there actual contact?

“Well, I don’t want to get into the details but certainly he was targeting young children and that’s what makes this case so so serious,” said O’Malley, not revealing further details.

McWilliams will make his first court appearance on felony charges Monday morning.

"... After being notified of the matter, the diocese immediately placed Fr. McWilliams on administrative leave pending the outcome of this matter. St. Joseph Parish, Sts. Joseph and John School and the Diocese of Cleveland are committed to protecting children and stand ready to cooperate with law enforcement to assist in the investigation,” according to a statement released by the diocese on Thursday.

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