Cleveland priest gets life. Victims’ mother: ‘God is with us'
A Pillar longread
Cleveland priest Fr. Robert McWilliams was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday, after the priest pled guilty to federal child trafficking, child abuse, and child exploitation charges.
McWilliams, 41, was ordained a priest in 2017. He was arrested in 2019, and pled guilty to federal charges in July of this year.
At his Nov. 9 sentencing hearing, the mother of four boys preyed upon by McWilliams urged a life sentence.
That mother and her family told The Pillar their story.
“Ok. I love my Church, I love my family. I want my Church to be healed. Ok.”
When Rachel Christopher*1 begins to tell her family’s story, she usually starts with a few phrases — a litany, really — that remind her who she is, and what really matters.
This time, I think, she’s using them to remember why she is sitting down with a stranger — sitting down with me — to share the kind of painful memories that no parent wants even to imagine.
Rachel is telling the story of the priest who hurt her children.
I don’t know how she manages to do it. I tell Rachel that if it happened to my family, I’m not sure I’d be able to talk about it with anyone, much less invite a stranger into my home and pour coffee, and then sit down and pour out my pain.
I tell her I don’t think I’d be strong enough.
But Rachel insists this is also the story of a faithful God, who loves her family beyond measure.
Rachel is talking about it, she tells me, because she does love the Church. And she does love her family. And she knows the Lord is calling her to speak.
“I feel that God is calling — I feel like it's a responsibility and I feel it would be totally wrong for me to do nothing and say nothing. I’m doing this for love of my Church and for other people and love of children and love for other parents. I don't want this to happen to anyone else— this is for our Church and it's for Jesus too, because he's hurting.”
Rachel tells me she also wants to tell her family’s story because she wants the Church to know they’re human beings — real people, real Catholics, with real pain. She says that when someone in your family is abused by a priest, it’s easy for diocesan officials to see you only as potential litigants, ready for a lawsuit. Or to see you as people who just want to harm or embarrass the Church.
That’s not her family, Rachel says. They want to help the Church in very specific ways. They want good to come from what they’ve suffered. Rachel wants to witness, too, to the faithfulness of the Lord.
And that means, Rachel says, she wants to tell me what actually happened. She wants people to hear it.
“Ok. I just want to do God’s will. Lord Jesus. I just want to do God’s will.”
Litany accomplished, she begins.
“From the beginning, Fr. Bobby was hunting our children,” Rachel tells me. “Before he was a priest. When he was a seminarian and he was here all the time. He was grooming us; our entire Church.”
The Christophers met Bobby McWilliams in 2014, while he was a seminarian at St. Mary’s, the diocesan seminary for the Diocese of Cleveland. McWilliams was assigned for a seminary internship to their parish, in a rural community outside of Cleveland.
“I had seen him at our church, but I really met him when our friend brought him to our house for a homeschool May crowning. So he was here at our home. And then I saw him at a friend’s house, at a graduation party, and I remember the first discussion, he sits down and he starts talking about how his passion is for pornography — like, his ministry is to help youth and teens struggling with pornography, you know, that he wants to help them.”
“Can I just tell you that all of us homeschool moms thought this was awesome? My son was a sophomore, and only had a flip phone, but to us all of us moms, it sounded awesome that Fr. Bobby said that.”
Rachel and her husband, Jacob*, have a big family. I’ve decided not to say how many children they have, because I want to help protect their identity. But I’ll say this: They have more than enough sons to field a basketball team, and not enough to field a football team.
When she met McWilliams, Rachel was worried that one of her sons, Joseph*, had recently looked for pornography online. He was 15. And Rachel was worried about more than the pornography: Joseph was depressed. He was getting bullied at school, a lot.
“I thought Fr. Bobby was an answer to prayer, and what I did was to thank God for him. And it makes me sick that I thanked God for him for two years,” Rachel told me.
“And this guy who I thought was going to help with the situation of pornography — he presented himself like he was a spiritual director, a counselor. And so he became so entrenched in all of our kids’ lives. Like — he didn’t just focus on my family. He didn’t pick my family. He picked everybody — especially people who had lots of boys.”
“He became involved in their lives. He was entrenched in all their friendships. He was entrenched in everyone’s lives. He’s totally a narcissist, but we didn’t know that. He was involved in all these teens’ lives, and the kids just thought he was awesome.”
McWilliams was charming, people told me. Everyone who knows him mentions his beautiful singing voice. Many people mention his “special ministry” of helping people with porn addictions. And he seemed to have a knack for just being around. For popping by, and knowing the gossip, and having time to talk. Everyone loved him. Or, almost everyone.
“I actually, well, for myself — he wasn’t my kind of priest,” Rachel told me. “But everyone loved him. Our church loved him. He was like a rock star. I remember struggling, because everyone liked him — but of course, I never imagined this.”
McWilliams remained friends with Rachel’s family and the families in their community well after his internship ended, and during his diaconal year, and after he was ordained a priest in 2017.
His first parish as a priest, in Strongsville, Ohio, was more than an hour from Rachel’s community. But McWilliams was often present in the lives of people in her parish — at birthday parties, and baptisms, and just to eat dinner or watch football. He lived more than an hour away, and as a priest he had his own flock, but still, it seemed he was visiting somebody nearby at least every week.
The priest knew a lot about the intimate and personal lives of people in the parish. And he knew that Rachel’s son Joseph was struggling — being bullied, feeling depressed, not fitting in. He knew from those spiritual direction sessions, and, Rachel now suspects, all those confessions.
In fact, he came to Rachel, and he said he wanted to help.
“He came to us because he said he could help with the bullying, and the depression. He was methodical about identifying things like that,” Rachel told me.
“He targeted Joseph because knew that Joseph was vulnerable.”
Rachel didn’t know that beginning in the fall of 2017, McWilliams was also in touch with Joseph online.
One day in that autumn, a girl sent Joseph a text message. She said she knew him from school.
She was flirtatious and flattering. She seemed to like Joseph, and she seemed to understand him. She asked him to send her indecent, sexual, images of himself — it’s pretty common among kids nowadays, the statistics show.
So he did it.
Joseph told me that he isn’t sure why he sent the first photos. In part, he said, he thought the attention — from a girl he thought he knew from school — might help him with fitting in.
“Obviously I was homeschooled my entire life and was not fitting in at school. And I knew everyone [texted nude photos and videos]. And I got that text, and I was like, ‘Oh, I can fit in.’”
Rachel put it directly:
“Joseph fell,” she said.
“From the point that he fell, he was in Fr. Bobby’s snare.”
For about a week, Joseph and the girl traded indecent photos.
“She would have her face cut out of the pictures,” Joseph wrote last month, in an account of his experience which he shared with The Pillar.
The girl also asked him to call and “talk dirty” to her, saying that she couldn’t respond because she would be in front of her parents.
Of course, she never spoke on those calls. If she had, Joseph would have heard the voice of his priest.
Joseph had no idea — no one did — that the “girl” texting him was actually Fr. Robert McWilliams.
After a week of trading photos with the “girl,” Joseph got a text from a phone number he didn’t recognize.
Joseph remembers the text verbatim: “Hey this is her best friend, her dad walked in on her and took her phone away. You are a horrible person for doing this.”
He was confused, and afraid. Especially because for the next four weeks, he got texts from the same number, with the girl saying she would send the indecent pictures to Joseph’s father if he didn’t send more photos, and videos. He did what he was asked.
The person behind that character, just like the first “girl,” was McWilliams. Joseph had no idea.
“Fr. Bobby created different personalities,” Rachel explained, to torment, blackmail, and manipulate her son.
Now, here’s where things get even more complicated.
Just a month after the blackmail began, one of the characters texting with Joseph said that “she” was going to tell Fr. McWilliams what had happened, and send him the pictures.
That plot twist allowed McWilliams to enter the drama he had created.
“I got a call from Bobby later that day saying ‘Hey, I know what you did, and we are going to talk about this,’” Joseph recalled.
That weekend, the Christophers and McWilliams were on a family retreat.
Joseph recalls: “I talked with Bobby for about an hour and a half. He ended up saying that it wasn’t my fault, and that any guy my age and in that position would do the same thing. We prayed that this person would never do this to anyone ever again.”
Rachel told me she’s sickened to think about that conversation.
“Joseph bore his soul to him. Joseph had confession with him. And so Bobby is getting his jollies — like, this sexual sadistic pleasure out of seeing Joseph’s pain, and hearing Joseph relive the details — but he was the one that orchestrated it.”
“Joseph is living in fear, and that makes Fr. Bobby the confidante, the savior. Do you understand how disgusting this is?”
At first, McWilliams told Joseph to tell his parents about the blackmail. Joseph was ashamed. But McWilliams said they should set a date to tell them together.
Joseph was relieved when McWilliams called him a few weeks later, and said they should keep what had happened to themselves. His parents didn’t need to know.
The priest had been toying with him. But back then, Joseph thought McWilliams “had his back.”
“I was so thankful for how understanding and loving Bobby was about the whole thing, and that he was there for me,” Joseph said.
They now see things differently.
Rachel explained: “Fr. Bobby was isolating Joseph from us. He told him, ‘Don’t tell your parents. You know how your parents are.’ Because we were strict. He fostered a hatred in Joseph towards us, so he becomes the savior. And he tells Joseph, ‘Don’t go to this priest, he’s bad. Don’t go to that youth leader, he’s bad.’ And basically, Joseph didn’t know that it was Fr. Bobby doing all of this [blackmail]. He had no clue.”
Over the next two years, Joseph fell into a serious depression. He thought, often, about taking his own life. But he says McWilliams was there for him.
“I would go almost once a week to Bobby for counseling. I would tell him how all this stuff was affecting me and how I just wanted to end my life, which I almost did twice. But he would always ‘be there for me.’ He would come to my family's house because we were all very good friends and my family loved him. He was the one person I could go to with anything, no matter what it was.”
“We would take him to Indians games and Browns games. He would sneak me a sip of his beer too. I would love to play music with him in our church and joke around with him. Every birthday he would get me and my siblings big bags of candy. He was very close with me and my family, and we all loved him,” Joseph remembers.
Rachel remembers that as Joseph fell deeper into depression, and thought about suicide, McWilliams “counseled” her son at every step of the way.
“He said he was helping Joseph get through the depression — but he was preying on that depression. And Joseph felt suicidal because of the blackmail, but Fr. Bobby was committing the blackmail. It was sick.”
McWilliams was Joseph’s confidante through that difficult depression. But the priest was also his tormentor.
In the summer of 2019, it had been almost two years since the initial blackmail. Joseph had heard from his blackmailer sporadically over those two years, usually demanding something. His parents had no idea what he was experiencing. Only his priest knew, Joseph thought — Fr. Bobby, who was willing to keep his secret.
But during a Church retreat that summer, Joseph got a friend request on Snapchat, from a profile that looked vaguely familiar.
Ten minutes later, Joseph’s heart dropped.
The person “sent me every single picture I had ever sent to the girl almost two years prior, and said, ‘If you do not send me some pictures, I will send these to your mom, dad, your school, and all of your friends,’” Joseph remembered.
“I thought I was done with this, but on the one weekend that was supposed to help me get better, this happens.”
He told his friends what had happened. With their encouragement, he told the person he wasn’t going to send any pictures. To his surprise, it actually worked. He didn’t hear from anyone on Snapchat again.
But it wasn’t over.
In mid-September 2019, Joseph got another text, again, from a number he didn’t recognize.
The text claimed to be from the girl who had messaged him two years earlier — the girl who got all of this started.
She asked Joseph for nude photos and videos. At first he said no. But the girl insisted — not with blackmail, but with flirtation, and flattery.
“Being the idiot I was, I decided to go along with it,” Joseph wrote. He sent pictures and indecent videos.
“She had said that if I did this for a week then she would finally tell me who she was. So, I continued to send pictures. She would have me send pictures at random times. If I was watching a game with my family, she would have me go to the bathroom and send pictures and videos. After about the second day of doing it, she had already threatened to send my parents everything if I stopped. So, at this point I had no choice. I had to keep sending pictures and videos.”
Things came to a head on September 29, 2019, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel.
Fr. Bobby was at the Christopher’s house to watch a Cleveland Browns game. The Browns were playing the Ravens. They’d win the game.
McWilliams sat in the living room with most of the family. Joseph sat at the kitchen table, doing homework. Rachel remembers that her son got up a few times, holding his phone and he seemed irritated. And she remembers that Fr. Bobby kept looking back toward the table, toward Joseph — but she didn’t think much of that — yet.
Rachel didn’t know that Joseph was getting texts during the game from his blackmailer, making demands of him. Rachel still didn’t know about the blackmailer at all. And no one — not Rachel, nor Joseph — knew that the blackmailer was the priest in their living room, who was tormenting their son, and watching their television.
Joseph initially complied with the demands, getting up to take pictures in the bathroom.
But then he stopped. It was too much. He said he wouldn’t send any more. A few minutes later, McWilliams got up from the football game, and said he needed to make a phone call. He asked to use the family’s prayer room.
Rachel remembers where she was.
“I was sitting on the couch facing the TV. And I heard [McWilliams] talking in that room as if he’s doing a phone call, and then I kind of saw him peering out a little bit, looking at us.”
“I remember now, I could see him just kind of...peering.”
Rachel’s phone started buzzing.
“I looked down at my phone and I could see that I had a text. And it was all these horrible images.”
One by one, photos and videos of her son started pouring across her screen. There was a message too: “Tell your man-whore of a son to stop harassing my underage daughter.”
“It was horrible,” Rachel told me. “I had no warning.”
At the time, Rachel didn’t know the texts were from McWilliams. But looking back, she says what happened was sick.
“So, like, his thing is, that he had to make sure he was there to set the chaos, and then to experience the chaos.”
When Rachel got those texts, there was indeed chaos.
“I never clicked on the videos,” Rachel said. “But I can’t even explain the fear that came over me. I went into the kitchen. And Joseph, who was doing his homework, must have seen my reaction.”
Rachel thought at first that the pictures were of another son, Joseph’s older brother. But Joseph walked up to his mother, and asked if she was angry with him.
“I looked up into his face, and I saw the horror in his face, and I knew exactly that those pictures and videos were Joseph.”
Rachel, Jacob, and Joseph went into the garage to talk. Joseph told his parents he’d been blackmailed for two years. And then he told them that McWilliams had known about it, and had seen the pictures.
“And when I saw his face, I just knew he was telling me the truth,” Rachel told me.
McWilliams followed them into the garage.
“And as soon as he came in, I said, ‘Joseph said that he was being blackmailed for two years and you know about it.’ I was mad. I was thinking this makes no sense. And I wanted to know why,” Rachel said.
“And immediately, without hesitation, he said to me: ‘Seal of confession. It’s the seal of confession.’ He said that a couple of times. But, now, looking back, the seal of confession does not mean that if he gets sent pictures at his rectory….”
Rachel remembers that McWilliams urged the family not to call the police. Joseph was by that time 18. And if the girl was underage, it might mean that he could be charged with committing a crime against children, he said.
“He was also trying to get me to delete the images that had been sent to me,” Rachel told me. “I knew I was never going to delete them. I felt the pressure of Fr. Bobby though, because he said that for the sake of Joseph’s dignity, I should delete them. He was asking me: ‘Why are you keeping them? Delete it, delete! What kind of mother are you? Delete, delete, delete!’”
“Fr. Bobby was creating chaos,” Rachel said.
“And Jacob was getting upset, he thought maybe I should delete everything. But now that I think about it, I wonder if an angel just let me know I shouldn’t. But I didn’t want to delete them, because I wanted them for proof. And something about the words just stood out to me. Because I have never really heard a boy described as a whore — and now I remember that Fr. Bobby would sometimes use that language — but then, something about it just seemed so familiar.”
Joseph remembers that he and McWilliams went outside to talk.
“I ended up going to confession to him and for some random reason my confession with him did not feel sincere. He was asking me if I knew who it was....I told him that I was pretty sure it was this one girl from [school],” Joseph explained.
“He ended up hugging me for a weirdly long time, and when I say weirdly long, it was like 10 minutes. He pulled my waist in towards his stomach, which even at the time set off a red flag, but I just dismissed it because of everything that was going on.”
“I cried myself to sleep that night. That was the most suicidal I have ever been. I knew the next morning was probably only going to be worse. I knew that my parents would never look at me the same,” Joseph said.
Looking back, Rachel says it’s not an accident that everything came to a head on the feast of St. Michael.
“I love St. Michael. St. Michael helped me when one of my sons was a baby. So when Fr. Bobby was at our house, he mentioned that it was the feast of St. Michael. And — because I have a gratitude to St. Michael — I remember feeling sorry that I hadn’t remembered that. But I believe that Bobby was supposed to say that, because I know that St. Michael was with us that day. Because it was such a spiritual battle.”
Rachel was exhausted by the time McWilliams left. She barely slept that night. Instead, she played through the pieces in her mind. She says the Holy Spirit, and St. Michael the Archangel, gave her some idea that McWilliams knew more than he had let on. That somehow, he might be behind it.
By the time the sun rose the next morning, Rachel said she knew that, somehow, it was McWilliams who had hurt her son.
It wasn’t easy to decide what to do. The Christophers were afraid to go to the police, worried that Joseph could face some kind of criminal charges.
But two days after she got the pictures, Rachel called a family friend, a police officer in another part of the state. She explained her concerns.
“And he said, ‘Rachel, you just have to trust.’ And at that point, I didn’t really hear his voice anymore. What I heard was the Lord’s voice, speaking through John. And he said, ‘When you bring things into the light, you have to trust that God is going to take care of you.’”
“He said, ‘This is a spiritual battle,’ and again, in that moment, I didn’t hear him. I heard the voice of God. And I felt peace. And at that moment I knew that I had to go to the authorities.”
Five days after the feast of St. Michael, the Christophers went to the police.
They weren’t the only ones to make a report.
The Christophers knew another family in their community whose teenage son had also been blackmailed via text and social media — pressured into sending indecent photos and videos too. According to court documents, the teenager’s mother had received sexually explicit images of her son, the year before Rachel did. After Rachel got the pictures of Joseph, she talked with the mother in that family, who was a friend.
Both families decided they would go to the police. And as it happened, the family was also close to McWilliams.
Of course, investigators could see that McWilliams was the common link between those two cases. But tying him to the blackmail would require hard evidence.
The proof came through some technological evidence. Investigators discovered that the phone numbers that texted Joseph and Rachel had come from apps which create fake phone numbers from which to text. Police got records from those apps, including the IP addresses from which texts were sent.
The records led to a startling discovery.
Investigators looked at September 29, the night Rachel got the pictures and videos of her son. They identified the IP address from which the pictures were sent; it was registered through an internet service provider in Ohio. Police subpoenaed records on the IP address.
It was, to their surprise, the Christopher’s IP address. The photos had come from inside the house.
When McWilliams texted Rachel, his phone had been connected to the family’s wifi. That’s how he got caught.
“That was the grace of God. Usually he shut [wifi] off, so that he only used his data — so that couldn’t really be traced. But the fact that he didn’t realize that his phone immediately went on our network — That was the grace of God.”
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Police searched McWilliams’ rectory on December 5, 2019. They found a hard drive, memory stick, and laptop containing thousands of images and videos of child pornography, most of them far too graphic, and upsetting, to describe.
The priest was arrested the next day, and charged with possession of child pornography.
In the days and weeks that followed, police analyzed his computers and hard drives, his dropbox accounts, his email addresses.
They found records of his texts with Joseph and at least one other boy whom he blackmailed on social media. They found indecent images and videos of those boys, and indecent images of a teenage girl he had used to deceive them.
They continued to find more child pornography, some of which graphically depicted children being sexually abused.
Police also found that McWilliams had used a location-based hookup app, Grindr, to meet two boys, 15 and 16, whom he paid for numerous sexual liaisons in nearby hotels. It is not clear when McWilliams started using Grindr to meet teenagers for sex. But it seemed to continue after the Christophers had gone to the police; investigators found hotel receipts from as recently as October 2019.
While county and state prosecutors had initially planned to charge him, McWilliams was charged with federal crimes in February 2020. Covid hit. Courts slowed down. But in July 2020, McWilliams was indicted on eight federal charges: two counts of sex trafficking minors, three counts of sexually exploiting minors, one count of transporting child pornography, one count of distributing child pornography, and one count of possessing child pornography.
Through his attorney, McWilliams declined The Pillar’s interview request.
Summing up the case this month, a federal prosecutor was blunt in her assessment of Fr. McWilliams:
“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. McWilliams targeted a vulnerable population that is also our most valuable resource: our children,” the prosecutor wrote.
“He was cunning, calculating and extremely cruel. Only a sociopath could accept the hospitality of a family only to disappear into another room to transmit images of a victim to his mother so he could witness the pain inflicted upon his hosts. Yet, this was just the tip of the iceberg.”
It was, really, just the tip of the iceberg for the Christophers — or at least, not even close to the whole story.
During the months of investigation, they learned some very painful things:
Three more of their sons, in addition to Joseph, had been approached on social media by McWilliams, posing as a girl, and asking or demanding indecent photos or videos.
McWilliams, posing as a girl, told one of Rachel’s sons who was only 11, that if he didn’t send pictures he would go to jail. He gave in and sent them. Rachel told me she thinks that since her son wasn’t supposed to be using social media in the first place, he was scared enough to believe McWilliam’s threats.
The Christophers also learned that two of their sons had been physically molested by McWilliams, in their own home, while they were at home. It wasn’t that the Christophers had left McWilliams alone with their kids at home, it was that he touched them inappropriately, time after time, in the family living room, while he watched sports or movies with the family.
One son remembers that he was physically abused at least 20 times, going back to even before McWilliams was a priest.
One year after he was indicted, in July 2021, McWilliams pled guilty to the charges against him. There was no plea deal. He will now spend his life in prison. The priest is expected to be laicized by the Vatican soon.
In a sentencing memo, McWilliams gave a brief statement: “I admit and accept responsibility for the offenses I pled guilty to in the Indictment. Along with this acceptance, I want to state my shame and sorrow for having hurt the victims, their families, and the church.”
For what it’s worth, Rachel doesn’t believe a word of that.
The obvious question, to me at least, is how the Christophers still practice the Catholic faith — after the trauma their family has been through, after they’ve been preyed upon by a trusted priest and family friend, how they ever might cross the threshold of the parish church again.
It hasn’t been easy. They have had their doubts. They have fresh wounds, which are becoming scars. Their children go to trauma therapy, the Christophers have had tough points in their marriage, but, almost two years after Bobby McWilliams was arrested, Rachel tells me again and again that God is good.
“I love Jesus. I believe wholeheartedly that the Church — the Catholic Church — is the one that Jesus founded. And you have the sacraments — I mean, we have the Eucharist here. So, like it says in the Gospel, where else would we go? I’m here because of the sacraments, because of Jesus in the Eucharist.”
“It’s because of the sacraments that I’m even able to get through this. Ironically, even though the Church —” Rachel sighs and trails off. She’s not just looking for the words. She’s working through the paradox of loving the Church that seems to have caused her pain. It’s hard to put words on that.
“The Church didn’t directly hurt me, or hurt us. I don’t know how to explain it, but, you know, McWilliams was...a son of the Church. So it looks like the Church hurt me, hurt us, hurt my family, hurt my kids, but… through this whole suffering, I’ve had to separate — there’s a difference between the bad men of the Church, and what the Church really is, which is the mystical Body of Christ.”
“Judas was with Jesus from the beginning. Jesus knew what would happen. I love my faith. I love my Church. And I’m staying for Jesus.”
“So I am upset,” Rachel tells me, “with the bad people in the Church. And you hear so much anger against the Catholic Church. But the Church itself is the mystical Body of Christ. And it’s where adoration and confession are. I love going to Eucharistic adoration. I need to go. And I have gone to confession so many times throughout this whole experience. And it’s because of the Church that we are still standing.”
“My family is still surviving. And that’s because of the graces that we have received in the sacraments, that give us the strength to endure the suffering — which came through the Church, because it came through the hands of a priest. So it is kind of confusing.
“But God has given me the grace to desire to go to Mass daily, and go to confession and adoration. That’s my favorite place. A friend encouraged me to keep my eyes on Jesus, and not on the bishops, or anyone else, just to keep my eyes on Jesus. That’s really helped me.”
More than a week after our interviews, Rachel calls me, to remind me that she doesn’t want to harm anyone’s faith when she tells her story. She wants them to see that God has been present to her.
“I just want to make clear that I love the Church and I love my faith,” Rachel tells me. “And even with you, talking with you about this, or talking with other people about all of this, I don’t want to do anything intentionally to hurt anyone’s faith. Because I believe the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ — And I don’t want to do anything to do anything to hurt Jesus. And I don’t want to abandon Jesus.”
She says she also wants to emphasize that most priests are not the problem. “There are so many good and faithful priests. Fr. Bobby is not most priests. And there are good priests that have helped us out. Like our own pastor. And I know there are priests who are hurting through all of this too. And I just want people to know that this is not —-to know that there are so many priests who have shared our pain and shared our anger and been shepherds to us.”
Joseph has not had the same experience.
“I have not really been to Church since the whole thing happened. I have gone like Christmas and Easter, and a few holy days of obligation. But it’s been very hard to go back to that,” he told me.
He has forgiven McWilliams, Joseph said. With a priest friend, he sat down and “went through a whole process of forgiving him, which was horribly hard. I felt like a knife was zigzagging through my stomach. But yes, I forgave him, and I don’t still hate him. But I strongly dislike him.”
Even while he’s worked to forgive, Joseph said his faith is especially challenged by the response of local Church leaders to the abuse he experienced.
“They need to get their head out of their asses,” he told me. “They need to get their shit together, because I’m sick of them covering up for the people who should be responsible. They’re making it seem like anyone who has been through something like this — like, it’s not that big a deal. They diminish the problems, and make it seem like it’s way less than it actually is.”
Joseph explained to me that he felt the Diocese of Cleveland, in which McWilliams was formed for ministry and ordained a priest, should try its best to understand what went wrong — how a man like McWilliams, who seems to have committed acts of sexual abuse before he was ordained, made it through the seminary in the first place.
Rachel told me she’s wondered the same thing.
And she expressed frustration about recent remarks from the rector of the seminary McWilliams attended, which she says failed to take responsibility for allowing McWilliams to become a priest. Rachel said it seems to her that the seminary wants to avoid any blame for what happened to her sons, and the other boys McWilliams abused.
In an interview last month, St. Mary’s Seminary rector Fr. Mark Latcovich said that the seminary has reviewed its policies, but it has not made substantial changes as a result of anything it has learned from McWilliams’ arrest.
Latcovich also suggested there was little the seminary could have done to address McWilliams’ double life: “If you’re hiding something and you don’t reveal it, nobody can help you – not the best of counselors, spiritual directors and formators.”
The priest said there were no indicators that McWilliams would commit any kind of misconduct: “Were there any flags that said, ‘Oh, now that this has happened, I did notice X’? Absolutely not.”
But Rachel told me there were red flags, and the Cleveland seminary should admit that.
The seminary, she said, should have wondered why McWilliams spent so much time in her community, during his internship and after — an amount of time that former seminarians told me was “excessive” and “highly unusual.”
“Why was he always over here? Why was he always at other houses? Wasn’t the seminary watching him or wondering why he was always over here?” Rachel asked.
Seminary formators should have done more to monitor McWilliams’ use of his cell phone, or paid some attention to the massive collection of child pornography that seems to have begun amassing before his ordination, Rachel said.
Rachel also noted McWilliams’ use of social media.
“Why didn’t anyone see that Fr. Bobby was on Instagram with all these kids? He had all these kids following him. And, like a narcissist, he was always puffing himself up [online]. They hang their hat on Virtus, but why didn’t anyone in the diocese notice this?”
Other Catholics who knew McWilliams saw red flags too.
Several Catholics in Cleveland told me that they had observed McWilliams interact with teens before his ordination, and that his closeness, and familiarity with them seemed inappropriate for an adult.
One Catholic in Rachel’s parish community recalled that McWilliams had several “furry heads” — large, expensive animal faced masks, associated with the furry subculture. Parents were mostly unaware of the alternative culture associated with the masks, and McWilliams encouraged children to wear them. More than once, he posed for pictures with children wearing the mask.
Had he owned the heads during seminary? Had anyone noticed them?
The same Catholic said her family visited McWilliams at the seminary. His behavior was unusual, she said. “He laughed about how much control he had over the other seminarians. Because they were not allowed to go into his room, they were not allowed to touch anything. They knew their place. Even so much as in the tv room, he had a place on the couch. When he walked in, they did not sit in his place. They got up and moved for him.”
A former seminarian, who studied at St. Mary’s for five years with McWilliams, was surprised when he learned about the priest’s arrest, but said in hindsight, he sees things about McWilliams’ years in seminary which give him pause.
“He was very good with technology, and he was very guarded about his personal life. But the one thing that really stuck out to me is that he was very good at sneaking things. So, like, we weren’t allowed to have alcohol in our rooms, but Bobby always had alcohol in his room, and he would invite people in to drink, you know?”
The former seminarian recalled a specific instance when McWilliams explained that he used his cell phone to avoid firewalls placed on internet use at the seminary.
“There was a firewall, and your formation advisor had access to anything that you searched [on your computer]. And I remember Bobby saying to us, waving his phone around, ‘Well, what’s the point of this? If you have [a cell phone], you can do whatever you want.’”
The former seminarian said McWilliams also would tell fellow seminarians that he could offer them guidance or counsel to get over pornography addictions — unusual behavior between seminarians, but one which seminary administrators seemed to approve.
Rachel told me that as a seminarian, McWilliams would sometimes boast about guiding other seminarians who struggled with pornography.
Rachel, and several other Catholics, said McWilliams often claimed that seminary faculty would sometimes send seminarians to him, for help dealing with pornography. Given that he had no training in the subject, she said, the seminarian’s interest in discussing pornography with anyone who wanted to talk about it should have been a red flag. At the very least, seminary formators should have looked into it more.
The former seminarian I spoke with said he thinks seminary administrators have seemed more concerned with avoiding responsibility than with being candid. But there are problems at the seminary that need to be addressed, he said — especially with acknowledging issues, discussing them, and tackling them head on. Things seem pushed under the rug, he said, and the McWilliams case is an example.
The former seminarian has been out of the seminary for more than five years. But there is one incident that he still thinks about, he said. During his time in seminary, he raised concerns — not sexual, but about appropriate conduct — about a priest to his formators and administrators, including the seminary’s rector. He says he felt like seminary formators looked the other way, without acknowledging his concerns.
“I don’t think the entire process at Borromeo and St. Mary’s is guided by faith...I feel really passionately that something has to be done to make things different there at the seminary. There are really good people working there, doing God’s work. And I believe with all my heart that they can’t keep letting people through who bring down what they’re trying to do...but there was a sense that if you were in the inner circle or they liked you, or if you got through your internship, you would be ordained, just, automatically. And that’s not right.”
The Pillar asked the Cleveland diocese if Latcovich would respond to criticisms of the seminary’s administration. While the priest did not offer comment, a diocesan official emphasized to The Pillar the psychological screenings and background checks conducted for seminary applicants, which include sexual history and social media screening at the time of application to seminary.
Diocesan “standards of conduct for ministry” emphasize that priests, seminarians, and others in ministry should use social media for ministry, but “not to develop personal relationships with those whom they serve, especially minors.”
The Pillar asked the Cleveland diocese whether it would evaluate its standards for technology accountability, given that McWilliams seemingly began amassing a child pornography collection while he was a seminarian, and used social media, hookup apps, and texting apps to prey on minors while he was a young priest. The diocese did not respond to that question.
The Pillar asked the Cleveland diocese whether any official flagged how much time McWilliams spent as a seminarian and young priest in the Christopher’s parish community, even after his internship, and after he was assigned to a parish an hour away. The diocese did not respond to that question.
The Pillar asked the diocese whether seminary administrators have learned any lessons, or implemented any changes, in light of McWilliams' ordination. The diocese did not respond to that question.
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, a former seminarian told me. And it’s easy to see the past in light of what we learn later. Rachel told me she thinks the key is being willing to learn from the past, and to change.
Rachel told me she hopes diocesan administrators will look carefully at whether the seminary sufficiently screened, monitored, and evaluated McWilliams before he was ordained. If not, she said, there should be accountability.
“For them to come out and say there were no signs, there was nothing — there were [signs]. But you guys aren’t willing to look at it. My anger comes from the fact that they keep saying that there weren’t [signs]. We all made mistakes, we all missed things. But the seminary seems to want to avoid being blamed instead of looking at what happened, and learn from it.”
“Let’s all learn from this. Because this has been hell for my family.”
Part of the hell, Rachel told me, is that while her family needs the Church to heal, the Church, or at least the Diocese of Cleveland, has seemed afraid of the Christophers.
The family has had a meeting with their bishop, Edward Malesic; Rachel said he was kind. Last week, she got a handwritten note of encouragement from the bishop, which came as a pleasant surprise. Rachel told me she appreciated the gesture.
But for the most part, Rachel said, the diocese has seemed more concerned with the legal ramifications of what happened to her family, and less with engaging them pastorally.
Before an early meeting with Archbishop Nelson Perez, who was Cleveland’s bishop until he was appointed to Philadelphia in January 2020, Rachel said she remembers that the family was given instructions from diocesan attorneys about what topics it was ok to talk with the bishop about.
Rachel thought it would be a pastoral meeting, but, like many conversations she has had with diocesan staffers, she felt like it was just a perfunctory exercise.
“And so you get to the point where you just shut down. You can’t even share from your heart. I remember thinking, like, are we just supposed to go and talk about the weather with him?”
“Everything they say to us, or about this, seems like it goes through legal, legal, legal.”
Her family has no intention to sue, Rachel told me, and she she’s told diocesan officials that. But she says she feels like the diocese has nevertheless held them at arms’ length, possibly afraid of a lawsuit.
“I told [the diocese] I wanted to work with them, to talk about what can be learned and what we learned. They seemed open to that at the time. But then nothing happens. So a meeting is nice, but nice isn’t good enough. Action is important.”
“I did like Malesic. But I want action. Because it’s been two years since [McWilliams] was arrested. We’ve lost two years. There’s two more years of victims. They haven’t — they still haven’t heard our stories, from our hearts. They need to understand the story so they can learn from it. So this doesn’t happen again.”
Jacob and Rachel want to help, they told me. But they also want pastoral care, and a pastoral response, and not just for themselves — they want to see spiritual leadership for the entire diocese.
Rachel told me she’s concerned that Church officials too often see sexual abuse as a legal problem, or even a pastoral one — but not as the central spiritual problem she sees — that clerical abuse, and the ensuing scandal, drives souls from Christ.
“And this is a spiritual battle for our entire diocese, and we have not seen a call for the whole diocese to pray for the victims, or to pray for Fr. Bobby, and the bishop leading that or pushing for that and showing that it's important. But this is a spiritual battle for souls and for children, and they think about it like this legal thing,” Rachel told me.
“They should be concerned that Joseph isn’t going to Church. Like, that’s a tragedy. And that’s where I want to see them. What are they going to do about those souls now?”
“They were hurt through the Church, and now that they’ve left the Church, does the Church care? The primary mission of the Church is the salvation of souls — and do they show that their first concern is people who have been hurt through the Church, and have left the Church — including my son?”
“That’s one of my biggest sorrows right now.”
The Christophers’ house has been blessed and exorcised. But Rachel has hoped for a priest to come to pray over her kids, and to help them process things spiritually. So far, they haven’t had that.
Rachel said she thinks most of Cleveland’s priests don’t know how to talk to her family. Some have been pastoral and kind, but many aren’t sure how to engage.
“A priest told me he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to even talk to me. And I don’t blame him. I don’t think the priests have gotten anything from the diocese on how to talk about this either. But it hurt us because my sons were victims of Bobby. And Bobby is the one who did this.”
“I still haven’t had a priest pray over my kids because every time I’ve asked, they’re like ‘eh…’ Like, one said, ‘I don’t want them to think that they did something wrong.’ And to me it’s a spiritual battle. I want spiritual healing for my kids.” Rachel said.
The Pillar asked the Cleveland diocese about its efforts at pastoral care in the wake of McWilliams arrest. The diocese did not respond to that question. The Pillar also asked whether the diocese has considered a third-party audit of the institutions that formed and evaluated McWilliams, to consider what lessons could be learned. The diocese did not respond to that question.
“We love our Church. And the hardest part,” she said, “is that we feel like the enemy. We are not your enemy. And, how did we get this enemy status? We’re not the ones that did this. It is very important for us to say: We’re here. We want to work with you. That’s my message. I want to help my Church,” Rachel told me.
“So two years have gone by. That’s two years of more victims. I don’t want a hug. I want to protect children, and protect our Church.”
Rachel isn’t sure what will change now that Bobby’s sentencing is complete.
A statement sent by the Cleveland diocese to The Pillar Tuesday urged Catholics, “as a family of faith,” to “offer prayers for all those impacted by his reprehensible actions and ask our loving Father to heal any and all wounds they have suffered. We also thank those in law enforcement and the judicial system who worked so hard to ensure that justice was served and that McWilliams’ wrongdoing was justly punished.”
“Finally, let us offer our support and thanks to all the good priests of the Diocese of Cleveland who faithfully live out their promises each day in service to God’s people. For its part, the diocese continues to actively pursue the removal of McWilliams from the clerical state,” the diocese said.
For Joseph, the important part is that the sentencing is over. He thinks it will bring some closure.
Before the sentencing hearing Tuesday, which Joseph attended, he told me that it would be the first time he had seen McWilliams since September 29, 2019.
“There’s a part of me that wants to get up there and just beat the shit out of him. I know I can’t do that because I’d get arrested on the spot. But at the same time, I am confident.”
“I have gotten to the point where I’m not letting him control my life anymore,” Joseph told me.
I asked Joseph if he wanted to give any advice to teenagers, based on what he’d been through. He laughed.
“Don’t send nudes,” Joseph said. “Don’t do it!”
A few days before McWilliams was sentenced, Rachel and I talked on the phone. She told me it’d been hard for the whole family to get ready for the sentencing hearing. And then Rachel went back to a litany.
“God is with us,” she said. “God has been so faithful. God is with us.”
Then she explained why that phrase meant so much to her.
“When I say God is with us, I mean that Jesus wasn’t just somewhere far away from our family, just watching things happening. He wasn’t outside of us.”
“When we felt abandoned, Jesus felt abandoned with us.”
“When I was in pain, Jesus was in my heart experiencing the same pain. He was with my kids experiencing the same pain they felt. He wasn’t with us from afar. Jesus was with us, right here, experiencing the same pain. With us.”
“The Lord has been so faithful to us.”
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* The names of Rachel, Jacob, and Joseph Christopher have been changed, to protect the privacy of McWilliams’ victims.