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Father Michael Pfleger, activist Chicago priest, faces claim of abusing minor

Screenshot_2021_01_05_at_85451_PM.png Father Michael Pfleger / Photo: Daniel X. O'Neil CC BY 2.0

The outspoken activist Chicago priest Father Michael Pfleger faces an allegation that he sexually abused a minor over 40 years ago, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago has said, adding that the claims have not been proven true or false and are under investigation.

Cardinal Cupich shared what he said was “difficult news” in a Jan. 5 message to members of Saint Sabina Church and the Saint Sabina Academy. Pfleger has served as a priest at the southside Chicago church since 1983 and is presently described as its senior pastor.

“In keeping with our child protection policies, I have asked Father Pfleger to step aside from ministry following receipt by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor more than 40 years ago. Allegations are claims that have not been proven as true or false. Therefore, guilt or innocence should not be assumed.”

“Father Pfleger has agreed to cooperate fully with my request and will live away from the parish while this matter is investigated,” said Cupich.

Cupich’s Jan. 5 message on the allegation against Pfleger said the Chicago archdiocese followed its child protection policies and reported the allegation to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Cook County State’s Attorney.

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“The person making the allegation has been offered the services of our Victim Assistance Ministry and the archdiocese has begun its investigation,” the cardinal said, adding “Please know that you are in my prayers. We will do our best to keep you informed of developments as they occur.”

The priest’s biography on the Saint Sabina Church website said that since 1968 he has lived and ministered in the African-American community on the west and south sides of Chicago. He worked two summers in a Native American community in Oklahoma, and as a seminarian he interned at Cook County Jail and at Chicago’s Precious Blood Church.

He adopted an eight-year-old boy in 1981 and adopted another boy in 1992. In 1997, he became foster father to Jarvis Franklin, who was killed in 1998 in the crossfire of gang shooting.

Pfleger, who is white, has long been a politically involved community leader based out of the predominantly African-American Saint Sabina Parish on Chicago’s south side. His causes include opposition to gun violence and support for gun control. At times he has voiced support for the ordination of women as Catholic priests, a position which the Church has held to be incompatible with the Catholic understanding of the priesthood.

In July 2018, he helped lead a gun violence protest that shut down Chicago’s busy Dan Ryan Expressway. Attendees at the march included U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., and Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Baptist minister and civil rights activist. The event was supported by Chicago’s then-mayor Rahm Emanuel.

On Jan. 5 the cardinal told the Saint Sabina community that the staff of the archdiocese’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth will be available for assistance.

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“It is crucial that you know nothing is more important than the welfare of the children entrusted to our care,” he said. “The Archdiocese of Chicago takes all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously and encourages anyone who feels they have been sexually abused by a priest, deacon, religious or lay employee to come forward.”

The cardinal’s letter said complete information about reporting sexual abuse is available at the Chicago archdiocese’s website.

Pfleger drew support from the Cabinet of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, a leadership body composed of more than a dozen parish leaders. In a January 5 message, posted to the parish website, the cabinet said that it believes that the accusations are unfounded. However, the message did not cite reasons for this belief. The cabinet pledged full cooperation with the archdiocese’s process, while also stating its belief that the priest will be “fully exonerated from all accusations.”

The message continued: “we will stand with him during this process as he has stood with victims of injustice and (we) will continue to uplift his work and the life he has committed to others.”

Pfleger has often been a source of controversy.

In May 2019, Cupich distanced himself from the priest when Pfleger invited controversial preacher Louis Farrakhan to speak at his parish after Farrakhan was banned from Facebook for violating its hate speech policies. Farrakhan is the founder of the Chicago-based group Nation of Islam and has a history of anti-Semitic preaching.

During the controversial 2008 Democratic presidential primary, the late Cardinal Francis George had to publicly respond to comments Pfleger made deriding Sen. Hillary Clinton and advocating the candidacy of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

In addition, George suspended Pfleger from his ministry at St. Sabina in 2011 and barred him from celebrating the sacraments because of public statements Pfleger had made threatening to leave the Church if he were reassigned from his current parish. George reinstated Pfleger after the priest apologized, saying he did not intend a public remark to be a threat to leave the priesthood and that he was sorry for how his comment appeared.

The Saint Sabina website said Pfleger has campaigned against the sale of drug paraphernalia, billboards for alcohol and tobacco products that target children, and music that glorifies violence and degrades women.

He has helped launch several employment and social services programs for youth, the elderly and the homeless. For one anti-prostitution program, he developed a team of church members who “rather than have the prostitutes arrested, went out and paid prostitutes for their time so they could talk about how they could turn their lives around,” his biography on the parish website said.

Father Thulani Magwaza will serve as temporary parish administrator during Pfleger’s absence. Magwaza stood in as parish administrator during the priest’s 2011 suspension as well.

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