CHICAGO — The Rev. Michael Pfleger will return to the pulpit at his South Side parish after a Chicago Archdiocese panel found “insufficient reason to suspect” that he is guilty of sexual abuse allegations from decades ago, Cardinal Blase Cupich told parishioners Monday.
Pfleger, the long-tenured priest famous for both his social justice activism and clashes with high-ranking Catholic Church officials, has been sidelined for more than four months as the archdiocese investigated complaints from two adult brothers from Texas who alleged the clergyman molested them repeatedly, beginning in the early 1970s.
Pfleger, 72, was flanked by dozens of jubilant supporters and two lawyers as he declared his innocence at a news conference Monday afternoon outside St. Sabina Parish in the Gresham neighborhood, where he has served since 1975. The priest 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 plans to resume his activism and noted that Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd, which set off heated street protests across the country and in Chicago.
“Let’s get back to work,” he said.
When asked by reporters about his accusers, he said, “All I can do is pray for them. I forgive them.”
Pfleger said he plans to say Mass on June 6.
Cupich announced in his letter to parishioners that Pfleger would return following the investigation by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Independent Review Board.
“The review board has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations,” Cupich wrote. “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.”
That letter Monday afternoon softened the language in a version sent out earlier in the day, which said that “there is no reason to suspect” Pfleger was guilty.
The accusers’ attorney, Eugene Hollander, said that the men were disappointed and surprised by the decision but that they do not regret coming forward.
“Both were absolutely floored, but they’re very happy they were able to speak their truth,” Hollander told the Chicago 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.”
Monday’s announcement marks a victory for a priest whose outspokenness, political activism and unusually lengthy tenure at St. Sabina have sometimes put him at odds with the archdiocese. In fact, this won’t mark his first return to the parish after a period of uncertainty. A decade ago, then-Cardinal Francis George suspended Pfleger following the priest’s public remarks that he would leave the Catholic Church if he was transferred away from St. Sabina. He returned about a month later to a standing ovation.
In January, the two brothers filed separate claims with the archdiocese alleging abuse decades ago. They said the sexual abuse began at Precious Blood Catholic Church on Chicago’s West Side when Pfleger was a seminarian there and the brothers were members of the choir. Both said they didn’t know of the alleged abuse of the other until recently.
The sexual abuse continued, the brothers said, when Pfleger was a deacon at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Parish in Glenview and at St. Sabina. 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.
Cupich’s letter Monday didn’t address any of the specific allegations.
Of the three men’s claims, Pfleger’s attorneys have said that the “45-year-old allegations are not corroborated by anyone, or anything, other than their own statements.”
In March, Hollander submitted the results of voluntary polygraph exams to the archdiocese that found the two brothers had passed. Hollander, 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 Pfleger’s case is 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.
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 sober for about 12 years.
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 currently is involved. The brothers are in their early 60s.
The office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said in a statement Monday that prosecutors had not “been presented with any information regarding allegations related to this matter by police to review or to determine if criminal charges are appropriate.”
Pfleger has maintained his innocence, and his legal team has accused the brothers of making false allegations 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.”
Outside St. Sabina on Monday, parishioner Bobbie Jones wore a T-shirt reading, “I stand with Fr. Pfleger” and hugged others gathered for the news conference.
“He’s a healer,” she said.
(Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt and Liam Ford contributed to this story.)