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Dilemma at heart of sex abuse claims

What are those who love and respect Father Michael Pfleger to make of accusations against him?

Father Michael Pfleger during a worship service at St. Sabina in 2011.
Father Michael Pfleger during a worship service at St. Sabina in 2011.
Sun-Times file

“No one ever had a bad word to say about him.”

In late May, 2015, it was revealed that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert had sexually molested boys he coached in high school wrestling. The media descended on his hometown of Yorkville, Illinois. Those who knew him were shocked and supportive.

“He was a fantastic mentor.”

Hastert was charged, not with the abuse itself, but for structuring payments to silence the abused. Which isn’t quite a signed confession. But close.

“I would have known for sure. Something like that we would have jumped on right away.”

Only the good people of Yorkville didn’t know. Or knew and didn’t jump on it right away. Hastert admitted to molesting children and went to prison for 13 months.

“I hope it’s not true.”

Which sums up the view of those who know and respect Father Michael Pfleger, including myself, as the longtime firebrand priest of St. Sabina’s faces a pair of brothers who accuse him of abuse 45 years ago.

By bringing up Hastert, I don’t suggest that, like him, Pfleger is also guilty. Rather that, like the residents of Yorkville, we are whistling in the dark. To defend, or condemn, Pfleger based on your own personal experience, or mine, is to bring too limited a view to the question. I could accurately testify under oath that John Wayne Gacy never murdered me. But he sure murdered somebody.

We can’t guess at the truth, and shouldn’t try. All the public can do is wait for the case to resolve itself, which might never happen. Until then, we can look at the context in which this is occurring.

What do we know?

Such accusations have exploded. In 2019, accusations of sexual abuse against Catholic clergy quadrupled, from what had been, a steady 1,000 or so a year, to 4,434. The church paid out more than a quarter billion dollars in settlements that year.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says half these reports are “credible,” which doesn’t mean the other half didn’t happen. Rather, the evidence isn’t there. Another matter are false allegations. Researchers consider false accusations of sex abuse to be vanishingly small — around 1.5% — though there are certain realms where it happens often, such as accusations of ritual abuse at day care centers, which seem subject to mass hysterias.

One-and-a-half percent is small, but averages only go so far. Pfleger could be that unlucky one in a hundred. People online sure think so. Facebook rallied to his defense.

“Something isn’t right here ... victims seek justice, not cash.”

The younger brother accusing Pfleger sent him a letter in December asking for $20,000. Explaining in interviews this week that he did so because, had Pfleger given the money, that would be “an admission of guilt.” He is right. Paying off an accuser, if you did the crime, is the easier way. That’s what Dennis Hastert did. And, it should be noted, what Michael Pfleger did not do.

“Cardinal Bernardin was also accused.”

In 1993. A reminder that such accusations have been aired for decades. If these brothers sincerely think Pfleger is a dangerous predator, what does their silence say? Former seminarian Steven Cook had no trouble speaking out against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Accusing him, falsely as it turned out, apparently. Cook wasn’t vilified. He was treated kindly, embraced, at least by Bernardin, even after Cook changed his story, “absolutely convinced of Bernardin’s innocence.”

Which leaves us with two contradictory imperatives: believe the accusers, and respect the innocence of the accused unless proven guilty. The first, a reaction to centuries of horrors ignored or shrugged away, a situation some believe endures. The second, recognition that people do sometimes lie, or are mistaken, or unhinged. If accusations are automatically accepted as fact, then any of us is one baseless claim away from ruin.

“He is the closest thing to what Christians claim to be.”

There is that. What is the point of being a good person, and developing a reputation over decades, as Pfleger has — advocate for his besieged community, thorn in the side of the often all-too-complacent church, friend to the friendless — if it can all be scrapped by a whisper? I would never say it doesn’t matter what Pfleger did half a century ago. It certainly matters. But I will say that whatever wrongs might lurk in his past, if anybody has attempted to redeem his sins through a life well-lived, that would be Michael Pfleger.

“Father God I ask you to keep your arms around our Pastor and to give him the strength he needs to sustain his faith in you...”