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As ‘Father Mike’ faces an abuse allegation, supporters rally to defend famed priest

A decades-old sexual abuse allegation against the Rev. Michael Pfleger has taken away one of Chicago’s most powerful voices.

Rev. Michael Pfleger has been removed from St. Sabina while an investigation is conducted of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor from 40 years ago.
Rev. Michael Pfleger has been removed from St. Sabina while an investigation is conducted of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor from 40 years ago.
Sun-Times file

Forty years is a lifetime.

I look back at where I was 40 years ago, and, while I marvel at how far I have come, I cringe when I consider where I have come from.

These are the thoughts that crossed my mind when I learned the Chicago Archdiocese announced there would be an investigation of an allegation that accused the Rev. Michael Pfleger of sexually abusing a minor four decades ago. It was a gut punch.

Father Mike? How is that even possible? The activist priest is as famous as a rock star. His civil rights activism includes turning St. Sabina Roman Catholic Church into a sanctuary for Black Roman Catholics and residents of Auburn-Gresham.

We’ve had our differences, but Pfleger has stood with the Black community through thick and thin.

It is unfathomable to many that he could ever be accused of harming a minor. This accusation is a test not only for Pfleger but also for the Catholic church.

“I am devastated, hurt and, yes, angry,” Pfleger said in a Facebook post. “Please keep me in prayer and the Faith Community of St. Sabina. I have been asked by the diocese not to speak out at this time. I am Blessed with good leadership and amazing members, whom I love. Pray also for the person, my life is more than a 40-year-old accusation, and on that and my Faith I will stand . . . The Lord is my Shepherd . . . I love you.”

The archdiocese is investigating and says that it has reported the allegation to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

Sadly, this accusation puts Pfleger’s ministerial journey on the same track as his mentor, the Rev. George Clements.

In 1980, Clements became the first Catholic priest to adopt children, eventually adopting four sons. Pfleger adopted two sons, Lamar in 1981 and Beronti in 1992.

Pfleger, 71, began his service at St. Sabina when he was 31.

Clements became pastor of Holy Angels Church in Bronzeville in 1969 and maintained that position for 22 years.

In 2019, the archdiocese notified Clements, who was 87 then, having retired 13 years earlier from active ministry, of a child abuse allegation.

Clements said then that the “atmosphere here today is so toxic. The overwhelming majority of priests have to wake up each morning wondering, ‘Is this the morning that someone is going to accuse me of something negative?’ ”

A month later, Clements had a stroke. He died two months later from a heart attack.

DCFS ultimately decided that the abuse accusation was unfounded.

Spencer Leak Sr., a longtime community activist and the owner and president of Spencer Leak & Sons Funeral Homes, is one of many who are standing by Pfleger, even as the priest has remained silent but for the Facebook post. Leak said he knows what it’s like to be falsely accused.

”I was trying to support my daughter-in-law and was arrested. I called Father Mike, and he prayed and counseled me,” Leak said. “We have serviced his family for years. I would like to see this cleared up quickly because we need Father Mike.”

Friend and confidant Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, doesn’t believe the allegation will tarnish Pfleger’s legacy.

“First, it is almost impossible to investigate something that old, but I’ve known Michael Pfleger for over 30 years,” Madhubuti said.

“He has been a part of the fight for liberation and education in Chicago. I don’t know who is making these charges, but that must not be allowed to destroy Pfleger’s name, his legacy, his commitment and his deep love for Black people. There will be no shortage of prayers for Pfleger as he goes through this trial.”

His supporters should also do as Pfleger asks: Pray for his accuser.

Forty years is a long time for the accuser to carry such a heavy weight.