A Catholic priest was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday for sexually exploiting boys, some of whom he extorted with details he gained from taking their confessions.

U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi said the public needed to be protected from the Rev. Robert McWilliams, saying the priest devastated and preyed upon the very youths who sought his help. She said he violated his position of trust to fulfill his sexual fantasies.

“He is evil incarnate,” the mother of two boys, both victimized by McWilliams, said during his sentencing hearing. “Father Bobby hunted and attacked my children.”

For nearly 30 minutes, the woman recounted how McWilliams damaged her family. She said one of her sons became suicidal, while the other was molested in a church and at home as the family watched football. McWilliams also attempted to gain sexually explicit photos of her other sons, she said.

“By the grace of God, we forgive you,” the woman said to McWilliams. Moments later, however, she urged Lioi to sentence him to life in prison.

McWilliams, 41, pleaded guilty in July to eight charges: two counts of sex trafficking of youths under 18; three counts of sexual exploitation of children; and three counts involving child pornography. The total number of youths he harmed is unclear.

The priest apologized to his victims and their families. He said he became addicted to child pornography and sickened by his double-life of deception as a Catholic priest.

“I’m broken, and I was afraid to get help,” McWilliams told Lioi. He also apologized to the Catholic Church, saying, “I’m sorry for letting you down” and harming the image of the priesthood.

Carol Skutnik, an assistant U.S. attorney, said McWilliams gathered more than 128,000 images of child pornography, many of them involving infants and toddlers.

She also said he forced teenage boys to provide him with sexually explicit images and paid two other boys, who were under 18, for sex. In one instance, Skutnik said, McWilliams told one of the youths he was in a hurry; he needed to get back to handle church business.

McWilliams was ordained in 2017 and began serving at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Strongsville. Prior to that, he had been a seminarian at St. Helen’s Catholic Church in Newbury Township in Geauga County, where he became active in a teen program.

Authorities began an investigation in October 2019, when two families from St. Helen’s filed a report detailing how their sons were extorted online for sexually explicit images of themselves. The boys believed they were sending the photos to a girl.

McWilliams had set up a phony account to gain the photos, prosecutors said. On Tuesday, Skutnik said McWilliams violated the sacrament of confession by obtaining details about the boys and then using them to obtain photos through the alias.

Skutnik noted that McWilliams was now seeking forgiveness from the families and apologizing to the church and Lioi. It was somewhat similar to how youths sought forgiveness when he performed the sacrament of confession, an act that he later used against them, she said.

“What he used as a sword he now wants to use as a shield,” the federal prosecutor said.

McWilliams was arrested in December 2019 and placed on leave from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. He has been in federal custody since then.

State and federal law enforcement officers searched his living quarters at the Strongsville church and uncovered numerous electronic devices that contained the sexually explicit photos of children.

Robert Dixon, McWilliams’ attorney, sought leniency. He told Lioi that he realized McWilliams would face a lengthy sentence, but the attorney said he hoped that the priest could be released and gain treatment.

Dixon said he did not want to minimize the pain McWilliams had caused, but he had hoped that serious treatment would be an option after a lengthy prison term. In a sentencing brief, he had discussed a term of 15 years, followed by supervision and treatment.

“I long for the day that I can receive the sacraments again,” McWilliams told Lioi.

McWilliams said he has sent a letter to the Vatican, seeking a release as a priest.

The mother of the victims was not moved. She said McWilliams robbed her sons of their youths, and her family of trust.

In a statement, the diocese said: “Today, with the sentencing of Robert McWilliams, let us once again, as a family of faith, offer prayers for all those impacted by his reprehensible actions and ask our loving Father to heal any and all wounds they have suffered.

“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.”

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