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Pfleger returns to St. Sabina, reflects on ‘painful nightmare’ that followed sex abuse allegations

“I’m a realist. For some, I know my name will be damaged for the rest of my life,” the Rev. Michael Pfleger said during his first service after being reinstated. “But most of that is by people that hate me anyway.”

The Rev. Michael Pfleger on Sunday returned to his South Side parish for the first time since he was reinstated last month following an investigation into decades-old allegations of sexual abuse, a process he described as “a painful nightmare” spurred by “false accusations.”

“It’s good to be home,” Pfleger told a raucous congregation at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham that included director Spike Lee and acting Chicago Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt.

The service, which stretched roughly three hours, gave Pfleger a platform to both reflect on the tumultuous five-month period during which he was under investigation, and to further attempt to clear his name which he said was wrongly “assassinated.”

“I’m a realist. For some, I know my name will be damaged for the rest of my life,” Pfleger said, his voice quivering. “But most of that is by people that hate me anyway.”

Father Michael Pfleger gets passionate Sunday as he celebrates Mass for the first time since January after he was reinstated as senior pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Auburn Gresham.
Father Michael Pfleger gets passionate Sunday as he celebrates Mass for the first time since January after he was reinstated as senior pastor of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina in Auburn Gresham.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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. 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.

Following an investigation into the claims of child sex abuse involving the brothers, Cardinal Blase Cupich sent a letter to St. Sabina’s congregation May 24 announcing the independent review board of the Chicago Archdiocese “concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations.”

Gene Hollander, the brothers’ attorney, called it “unfathomable” that Pfleger was cleared to return to St. Sabina, claiming the evidence against the priest was “overwhelming.”

“You had three victims attesting to sexual abuse with independent corroborating evidence,” Hollander said Sunday.

His clients, however, still haven’t decided whether to file a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Pfleger told churchgoers he’d continue to pray for both his accusers and those who reveled in the controversy. He claimed the “false accusations began with an extortion letter” and resulted in a traumatic whirlwind in which he was pulled away from his home and his church.

“The last five months have been a painful nightmare. They’ve been the most extended period of pain in my life,” he said, noting there was little he could do but profess his innocence.

But Sunday, Pfleger was reinvigorated, vowing to recommit to the community organizing and advocacy for social justice and gun violence that has made him a folk hero.

“These are fights that I’m not about to stop,” he said. “In fact, if anything, I’m going to fight harder because I’m stronger, I’m better and I’m wiser.”

Pfleger was met with a hero’s welcome, and members of the congregation were overjoyed about his return.

Joyce Matlbia, who lives in Flossmoor and has been a member of the congregation for 11 years, said it’s “so awesome to have him back.”

“He just cares,” Maltbia said, noting that Pfleger runs a food distribution program and that St. Sabina will soon become a COVID-19 vaccination center. “Watching him be him helps me to be a better me.”

Nicholas Boyle, a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago who has been coming to St. Sabina since January, said he’s also inspired by the work Pfleger does. Boyle, a budding community organizer, said he’s modeling his activism after Pfleger’s.

“Listening to his sermons, it really inspires me,” he said. “He doesn’t hold back. He’s there fighting for justice, not compromising [and] making sure that the South Side and Chicago is represented.”

After greeting a stream of parishioners after the service, Pfleger told reporters it was “a blessing to be back and to be with people who stayed with you, walked with you, believed in you.”

“I see this as coming back to begin anew,” he said.