Pfleger to return to St. Sabina after investigation into allegations of sex abuse

In a letter Monday to St. Sabina’s congregation, Cardinal Blase Cupich said the archdiocese’s review board “concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations.”

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Rev. Michael Pfleger

Rev. Michael Pfleger speaks Monday outside his St. Sabina Church after it was announced that he will return to his role as senior pastor after being cleared of sexual abuse allegations.

Ashlee Rezin García/Sun-Times

He’s back.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger took a victory lap of sorts Monday after the Chicago Archdiocese announced it had cleared him to return to his South Side parish following the conclusion of an internal probe into decades-old allegations of sexual abuse against minors.

“I have been on a pause button for five months, and I’m pushing play today,” Pfleger said Monday during a news conference held on the front steps of St. Sabina Church in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

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The iconic South Side priest, known for speaking his mind and ruffling feathers, made it clear that he has not changed despite a stretch of silence that lasted the length of the investigation.

“I am who I am. As flawed as I am, I’ve always been who I am. And I’m not going to change that. I’m going to fight harder than ever,” he said.

“I just don’t want people to think, well ‘I’m going to come back, and he’s been told just to calm down now.’ You can’t calm down Mike Pfleger,” he said to the cheers of about 100 parishioners.

“We have a lot to do. The violence in this city is out of control...Let’s get back to work. And let’s kick the devil’s butt,” he said.

Pfleger, who’d been living downtown in a one bedroom apartment during the investigation, returned to his living quarters at the St. Sabina rectory Monday. And he’ll return to his role as senior pastor June 5. He plans to hold Mass the next day and talk at length about the experience with parishioners.

Cardinal Blase Cupich announced Monday in a letter to St. Sabina’s congregation that the archdiocese’s independent review board “concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations.”

“I have asked Father Pfleger to take the next two weeks to prepare himself spiritually and emotionally to return, realizing that these months have taken a great toll on him,” Cupich wrote. “He has agreed to do so.”

Over the next two weeks, before he formally returns to the pulpit, Pfleger said he planned to reach out to financial backers who put their donations on ice during the investigation.

He also confirmed the absence has not been easy on him.

“I am so relieved and glad that this nightmare is over,” he said. “It’s hell when you can’t respond,” he said of news coverage on the allegations.

“I’m home...I love you St. Sabina!” he shouted to roars before stepping away from a row of news microphones, trailed by cameramen and supporters.

The church’s announcement was “the strongest statement of innocence the archdiocese can make under their rules and regulations,” Pfleger’s attorney, Jim Figliulo, said. “They’re essentially saying there’s no reason, no sufficient reason to suspect Fr. Pfleger of sexual abuse.”

Pfleger was removed from active ministry at the Auburn Gresham parish in January after he was accused of sexually abusing a minor more than 40 years ago. Later that month, the brother of Pfleger’s first accuser came forward with his own allegations.

The men, who are in their 60s and now live in Texas, said at a news conference that Pfleger molested them dozens of times, starting in the 1970s. It allegedly began when they were in the choir at Precious Blood Church on the West Side and continued for years at the Mundelein Seminary as well as two other churches, including St. Sabina, where Pfleger has served as pastor since 1981.

Pfleger on Monday maintained his innocence, called the accusations false and said he’s praying for his accusers.

Then in March, a 59-year-old man came forward to bolster the brothers’ claims, alleging Pfleger molested him in the rectory at St. Sabina when he was 18.

Paula Waters, an archdiocese spokeswoman, said the investigation focused on the claims of child sex abuse involving the brothers. Waters didn’t immediately respond when asked whether the archdiocese also probed the third allegation.

Eugene Hollander, the brothers’ attorney, issued a statement Monday saying he and his clients are “shocked and deeply disappointed” by the review board’s conclusion, notably that the allegations were “in their words ‘insufficient’ to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty.”

“They provided detailed accounts of the sexual molestation as well as information that only these victims would be aware of,” Hollander said of the brothers. “ Additionally, the sexual abuse was corroborated by a third victim who was in no way connected to the brothers.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department said a criminal investigation remained “open and active.” The Cook County state’s attorney’s office, however, “has not been presented with any information regarding allegations related to this matter by police to review or to determine if criminal charges are appropriate,” according to a spokesperson.

The St. Sabina community stood behind their beloved pastor.

Kimberly Lymore, associate minister at St. Sabina, said church leaders were ecstatic after learning that Pfleger would soon return to the pulpit.

Kimberly Lymore, associated minister at St. Sabina Parish

Kimberly Lymore

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“We always thought (the allegations) were false,” Lymore said. “It was someone after money after 40 years.”

Lymore, who has been with the church since 1983, said she and others at the church believed Pfleger would return and had been awaiting that day. Church leaders often followed Pfleger’s lead, particularly on social justice issues.

“It was difficult to try to fill some of those gaps,” she said. “He’s a visionary.”

During Pfleger’s absence, the church went as far as withholding $100,000 in monthly assessments until after church officials closed their investigation into the abuse accusations.

That move came days after the state’s Department of Children and Family Services sent a letter to Pfleger in February stating its own investigation determined the allegations that Pfleger was a risk to be around kids were “unfounded.” While Pfleger had hoped DCFS’ findings would allow him to return to the church, the archdiocese noted the agency wasn’t investigating the brothers’ claims.

Cupich on Monday encouraged St. Sabina’s congregants to welcome back Pfleger, “thereby helping him take up again the ministry that has distinguished St. Sabina in the archdiocese and beyond.”

A video posted to Facebook Monday shows a group of children rushing to embrace Pfleger outside St. Sabina.

“It’s different without Father Mike,” says one of the kids. “But he’s back now!”

Susan Thomas, another spokeswoman for the archdiocese, wouldn’t provide the report issued by the church’s review board that paved the way for Pfleger’s reinstatement or say what factors led to that decision. Thomas said the report stated that the review board “determined that there is insufficient reason to suspect that Fr. Pfleger sexually abused Mr. [redacted] when he was a minor,” language she said was the same for “both allegations” lodged by the brothers.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was conspicuously quiet while the archdiocese conducted its investigation, praised the outcome.

“Father Mike has sacrificed his life and dedicated himself to service. I know that he is an important center of gravity in the Auburn Gresham community. I know that he is a conscience for many of us around issues of gun violence that plagues way too many communities in the city. And he is an advocate for victims,” the mayor said Monday at an unrelated news conference on housing assistance.

“We had to trust the archdiocese process. That process is now concluded. And I’m grateful that Father Mike will be back at St. Sabina’s. And I’m sure that there’s rejoicing all over that community as a consequence.”

Lightfoot acknowledged the courage of those who “came forward and said they were victimized” by Pfleger.

“The fact that those men now came forward and spoke their truth is something that we can’t ever undermine or underestimate,” the mayor said.

“They came forward and made allegations. The archdiocese, as we should have, took those allegations very seriously and went through a very thorough process to evaluate those allegations and now come to a conclusion.”

A staunch crusader against gun violence, Pfleger became one of Chicago’s most visible community organizers before the series of abuse accusations derailed his activism. His celebrity stature was cemented in 2015 when John Cusack portrayed a fictional version of him in Spike Lee’s film “Chi-Raq.”

The text of Cardinal Cupich’s letter:

Dear Members of the Faith Community of St. Sabina, Thank you for your patience and prayers during the absence of your senior pastor. Father Michael Pfleger. As you know, earlier this year the archdiocese received allegations of child sexual abuse against Father Pfleger. In accordance with our policies for the protection of children and youth, the archdiocese Independent Review Board assisted by our Office of Child Abuse Investigation and Review and outside investigators conducted a thorough review of the allegations. The Review Board has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations. Having given careful consideration to their decision, which I accept, I now inform you that I am reinstating Father Pfleger to his position of Senior Pastor of the Faith Community of St. Sabina, effective the weekend of June 5-6, 2021. I have asked Father Pfleger to take the next two weeks to prepare himself spiritually and emotionally to return, realizing that these months have taken a great toll on him. He has agreed to do so. The weekend he will return is the Feast of Corpus Christi when we celebrate that we are one in the Body of Christ, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. It is in this spirit that I ask you to welcome back Father Pfleger, thereby helping him take up again the ministry that has distinguished St. Sabina in the archdiocese and beyond. This past year has been a time of great trial for us all, and our church, our city and society are in need of your witness to Jesus’ love. Please know you will have my support and prayers as you continue to be a light in the community. Sincerely yours, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Elvia Malagón

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