Cardinal reinstates Chicago priest accused of abuse

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CHICAGO — Cardinal Blase Cupich is reinstating the Rev. Michael Pfleger as senior pastor at St. Sabina Parish after the archdiocesan board that investigates sexual abuse claims found “there is insufficient reason to suspect” the iconic South Side priest is guilty of allegations of abuse dating back decades, according to a letter released to parishioners Monday.

Two adult brothers from Texas in January lodged complaints that in the 1970s each was molested by Pfleger, the high-profile pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Parish in the Gresham neighborhood who has clashed with a succession of Catholic leaders over many matters including his unusually long tenure at the same parish.

Pfleger was flanked by dozens of supporters and two lawyers as he declared his innocence at a news conference Monday afternoon outside St. Sabina. He was emotional, wiping his eyes as he thanked those who stood behind him cheering and clapping.

“This has been the most difficult and challenging time in my entire life,” he said.

Pfleger said he is ready to resume his fight for social justice and noted this week's anniversary of a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd.

“Let’s get back to work,” he said.

The allegations had been under investigation by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Independent Review Board. In a letter, Cupich told parishioners Pfleger will return June 5.

“The review board has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations,” Cupich wrote in the letter to parishioners informing them of his decision to reinstate the priest. “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.”

An earlier version of the letter said that “there is no reason to suspect” Pfleger was guilty. Archdiocese officials sent out the revised letter early Monday afternoon.

The accusers’ attorney, Eugene Hollander, said the archdiocese notified him of the review board’s decision early Monday, shortly before it was announced publicly. While disappointed and surprised, Hollander said the men do not regret coming forward.

“Both were absolutely floored but they’re very happy they were able to speak their truth,” Hollander told the Tribune. “Father Pfleger knows what happened. … There are three people in the world who know what happened and my clients are glad they had the opportunity to get their story out.”

The brothers — who said neither of whom knew the other had allegedly been abused until recently — filed separate claims with the archdiocese in January. They said the sexual abuse began at Precious Blood Church on Chicago’s West Side when Pfleger was a seminarian there and the brothers were members of the choir.

The sexual abuse continued, the brothers say, when Pfleger was a deacon at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Glenview and at St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side, where Pfleger has served since 1975. He was named St. Sabina’s senior pastor in 1981.

A third man came forward in early March to say Pfleger made an unwanted sexual advance when the accuser was 18. In an affidavit shared with church officials, the man alleged Pfleger once grabbed him in a sexual manner in the priest’s bedroom area at St. Sabina in summer 1979 while the teen pretended to sleep.

Of the three men’s claims, Pfleger’s attorneys have said that their “45-year-old allegations are not corroborated by anyone, or anything, other than their own statements.”

In April, Hollander submitted the results of voluntary polygraph exams to the archdiocese which found the two brothers had passed. The attorney, who has represented victims of defrocked priest Daniel McCormack in an infamous abuse case that helped lead to an overhaul of Chicago church policy, said the review board’s finding in the Pfleger case is very unusual.

“I am very, very surprised in light of the fact both brothers gave very credible and detailed accounts concerning the abuse they endured some 40 years ago, which was corroborated by a third victim, who was not seeking financial compensation,” Hollander said, adding, “and both brothers underwent polygraph examinations and passed.”

Pfleger’s supporters have rallied behind him, including earlier this year when St. Sabina announced it was withholding $100,000 in monthly assessments to the archdiocese until it completed its investigation.

Days earlier, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services confirmed its investigation had concluded as “unfounded.” Under state law, though, DCFS may only investigate claims of abuse or neglect in cases where a child is currently involved.

The brothers are in their early 60s.

Pfleger, 72, has maintained his innocence in comments posted to social media. His legal team has said the brothers’ allegations are false, concocted in hopes of receiving a financial settlement. They noted the younger brother sent Pfleger a letter seeking $20,000 just before he filed a complaint with the archdiocese.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Monday she is grateful Pfleger will return to St. Sabina. She described Pfleger as “an important center of gravity in the Auburn Gresham community and I know he is a conscience for many of us around issues of gun violence that plagues way too many communities in this city. And he is an advocate, an advocate, for victims.”

Lightfoot also said the accusers “deserved to be heard.”

“The archdiocese went through a process to evaluate those allegations and again, we’ll learn more in the coming days I would suspect as to what that process was,” she said, “but the fact those men now came forward and spoke their truth is something we can’t ever undermine or underestimate.”

Both brothers spoke to reporters earlier this year. They asked that their identities not be made public. The older of the two brothers, who works as a consultant, served 20 years in the Air Force, and then worked as a police officer in Texas, reaching the rank of sergeant.

The younger brother is a counselor at a homeless shelter in Texas, working with veterans and those with substance abuse issues. He served in the Army for eight months before being honorably discharged for health issues. The man also battled a drug addiction for decades but he said he has been clean and sober for about 12 years.

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(Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt and Liam Ford contributed.)

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