Outspoken activist priest Father Michael Pfleger will return to the pulpit, after a Chicago archdiocese investigation concluded there was “insufficient reason” to suspect he was guilty of allegations of sexual abuse.
Cardinal Blase Cupich announced the decision in a carefully-worded statement on May 24, saying, “The Review Board has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations.” Earlier this year, Fr. Pfleger had been accused of sexual abuse by three alleged victims, including by two brothers.
Cardinal Cupich said the Independent Review Board, along with the archdiocesan Office of Child Abuse Investigation and Review as well as outside investigators, conducted “a thorough review” of the allegations in accord with archdiocese policy.
The cardinal said he gave “careful consideration” to the review board’s decision, which he accepts. Pfleger will be reinstated as senior pastor at his parish, St. Sabina Church, effective the weekend of June 5-6.
“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,” said the cardinal.
He thanked the parishioners for their “patience and prayers” during Pfleger’s absence.
After the cardinal announced his decision, Pfleger again declared his innocence.
“I am innocent of those charges and accusations and I cannot tell you how grateful I am to God and all those who supported me and prayed to me during this time,” Pfleger said at a Monday afternoon press conference, WGN 9 News reported. “This has been the most difficult and trying time of my life. I have been frustrated, I have been angry, I have been depressed and I have been discouraged.”
Pfleger was removed from ministry at St. Sabina Jan. 5, after a man came forward and alleged that he was abused by Pfleger as a child more than 40 years ago. Since then, two other men, including one who is the brother of the first accuser, have said that they too were sexually abused by Pfleger.
On May 24, the attorney representing the two brothers who accused Pfleger said that his clients “provided detailed accounts of the sexual molestation as well as information that only these victims would be aware of.”
He said the two clients corroborated each other, and this alleged sexual abuse was “corroborated by a third victim who was in no way connected to the brothers.”
Cupich had asked Pfleger to step back from ministry after the abuse allegation.
“Allegations are claims that have not been proven as true or false. Therefore, guilt or innocence should not be assumed,” Cupich said in January.
In the cardinal’s announcement that Pfleger would be reinstated, Cupich noted that the priest will return to public ministry for the Feast of Corpus Christi. This is “when we celebrate that we are one in the Body of Christ, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows,” he said.
“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,” said the cardinal.
“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,” he said.
Pfleger and members of St. Sabina had voiced their frustrations with the length of the archdiocese’s investigation into the abuse claims.
On Feb. 23, the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services reportedly sent Pfleger a letter calling the child abuse and neglect accusations against him “unfounded.”
In response, the Archdiocese of Chicago said the state’s investigation focused on the “risk of harm” to children, and was not directly focused on the veracity of the allegations against the priest. The archdiocese said at the time that it was difficult to predict how long its investigation would take.
In late February, Pfleger’s parish said it would pause its monthly assessments to the archdiocese, in order to expedite the investigation.
The parish statement claimed that the assessments amounted to around $100,000 per month. The parish encouraged supporters of the priest to write to the archdiocesan Independent Review Board and ask for the investigation to be expedited.
Pfleger has served as the pastor of St. Sabina since 1981. He is now listed on the parish website as the “senior pastor,” a position that does not exist in canon law. Pfleger, who is white, is known as an outspoken activist pastor who ministers to the predominantly African-American community.
He has participated in marches against gun violence, has adopted three different boys – one of whom was killed by a gang shooting crossfire in 1998 – and is active in social services for the homeless and the unemployed in his community.
At Monday’s press conference, Pfleger said he would again focus on gun violence.
“We’re going to get more aggressive against the violence. I’m going to become more aggressive against guns,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to fight every injustice we see.”
Gun violence in Chicago is up 36% from the same period in 2020, with homicides up 19%, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday. At least 1,244 people have been shot in 2021, with 244 homicides.
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