Robert McWilliams, the former Cleveland priest serving life in prison for multiple child sexual exploitation crimes, died in federal custody Friday morning.
McWilliams died shortly after 3:00 A.M. Feb. 4. His death is being investigated as a suicide, according to a statement from the Union County coroner’s office.
McWilliams was serving a life sentence in Allenwood Federal Prison in Pennsylvania. He was sentenced in November 2021, after he pled guilty to federal charges of child trafficking, child abuse, and child exploitation. His death was first reported by local news outlet WKYC.
He was laicized by the Vatican in December 2021.
McWilliams, 41, was ordained a priest of Cleveland, Ohio in 2017. He spent two years in ministry before he was arrested in 2019, and was eventually charged with a raft of child sexual exploitation crimes. As previously reported by The Pillar, McWilliams’ crimes included the spiritual and sexual abuse of several boys.
Family members of victims recounted that he used his position as a priest and trusted mentor to emotionally manipulate and sexually extort young men, among them several members of the same family, using an elaborate series of fake social media accounts, as well as personal knowledge of the boys gleaned from his ministerial contact with them.
McWilliams was also found to have used the location-based hookup app Grindr to meet underage boys for sex, in some cases paying them for sexual acts, for which he was charged with child trafficking charges. Hotel receipts presented during his trial showed that McWilliams continued to meet the young men in hotels even after some of his victims had reported his activity to police.
During his trial and sentencing, prosecutors described McWilliams as “cunning, calculating and extremely cruel.”
“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,” prosecutors argued.
At his sentencing hearing in November, McWilliams read from a letter he said he had composed for victims.
“All I have to offer you now are my prayers and my apology," he read.
“I pray your faith in God and in the church will be healed. It doesn’t minimize… 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 added that he was “ashamed and sorrowful for my actions and my sins.”
In an interview with The Pillar, published after McWilliams was sentenced in November, one of his victims said he had forgiven his abuser, but suffered lasting spiritual damage.
“I went through a whole process of forgiving him, which was horribly hard,” he said. “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.”
“I have not really been to Church since the whole thing happened,” he said. “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.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Cleveland issued a statement on McWilliams’ death to The Pillar Friday afternoon, saying that the diocese “learned this afternoon of the passing of Robert McWilliams.”
“We place this and all difficult situations in the hands of God. We will continue to pray for the those hurt by his actions. May God be the source of their healing.”
This story is developing and has been updated.