Laicized Former Priest Serving Life Term Dead of Apparent Suicide

'We place this and all difficult situations in the hands of God. We will continue to pray for those hurt by his actions. May God be the source of their healing,' the Diocese of Cleveland told Ohio Media.

Prison (photo: Credit: / Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

Robert McWilliams, a recently-laicized former priest, died Friday, Feb. 4 in his jail cell at the federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania. He is believed to have died by suicide.

McWilliams, 41, was about three months into a life sentence for sex trafficking of youths under 18, child pornography, and sexual exploitation of children. He pled guilty to eight federal charges in July 2021, and was sentenced on Nov. 9. 

He was discovered unconscious in his cell shortly after 1 a.m., and was declared dead at a nearby hospital at 2:18 a.m., authorities said. An autopsy was performed on Saturday, Feb. 5. 

On Dec. 21, Pope Francis issued a decree removing McWilliams from the clerical state, as punishment for his crimes of the sexual abuse of a minor. McWilliams had previously said that he intended on resigning from the priesthood. 

A priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, McWilliams was ordained a priest in May 2017. He served as parochial vicar at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Strongsville, Ohio, until his arrest in December 2019. 

The Diocese of Cleveland told Ohio media that they first heard of his death on Friday afternoon, saying, “We place this and all difficult situations in the hands of God. We will continue to pray for those hurt by his actions. May God be the source of their healing."

According to court documents, McWilliams had thousands of photos and videos of child pornography, which were located and seized from a search at McWilliams’ residence at St. Joseph Catholic Church in 2019. 

Authorities also claimed that McWilliams forced teenage boys to provide him with sexually explicit images. McWilliams had become acquainted with some of his victims during his time in seminary while serving at a parish. 

McWilliams also posed as a girl on social media websites, and contacted his victims under the guise of the identity of a teenage girl. He would then blackmail the teen boys in order to continue receiving explicit images.

A 26-page sentencing brief includes the experiences of at least five victims, all of whom were minors. The brief also states that McWilliams was using apps like TextMe and TextNow to hide his phone number when communicating with minors. Additionally, according to the brief, McWilliams used Craigslist and the mobile app Grindr to locate young males and arrange sexual encounters. 

McWilliams reportedly used Dropbox to store more than 128,000 images of child pornography, and sexually explicit images he extorted from minors were found hidden on his computer in folders containing his homilies and Bible studies.

During sentencing, McWilliams read from a letter he said he wrote to a victim, saying that the actions were his fault, “not the church or the priesthood,” and that he prayed the victim’s “faith in God and in the church will be healed.” He also said he was “ashamed and sorrowful for my actions and my sins,” and offered his prayers to the victim.