Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago 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 south side Chicago church since 1983 and is presently described as its senior pastor.
Cupich asked the priest to step aside after the archdiocese received an allegation that he sexually abused a minor over 40 years ago. The archdiocese has reported the allegation to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Cook County State’s Attorney.
“Allegations are claims that have not been proven as true or false. Therefore, guilt or innocence should not be assumed,” said Cupich. “Father Pfleger has agreed to cooperate fully with my request and will live away from the parish while this matter is investigated.”
Pfleger, who is white, has long been a politically involved community leader based out of the predominantly African-American Saint Sabina Parish.
A Jan. 6 statement from the church reported that community activists have planned a rally at St. Sabina Wednesday morning. The church leadership was not consulted, “nor are we involved in this event,” the church said.
“We appreciate the tremendous outpouring of support to Rev. Michael Pfleger from the community that he has served for 45 years,” the church statement said.
Among the priest’s supporters who gathered at the church was community activist Ja’Mal Green.
“To the possible one victim, their story deserves to be told,” he told ABC 7 Chicago. “Everybody has a story. Everybody has a truth. We want to hear it. We want to hear it. I think that this investigation needs to happen and this investigation needs to be swift, but think about the harm that’s going to be done in this community now and even when he comes back so we want to make sure that the public knows the type of man that Fr. Pfleger is.”
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 a gang shooting.
His causes include opposition to gun violence and support for gun control. He led an anti-gun march last Thursday, ABC 7 Chicago reports.
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.
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He has also helped launch several employment and social services programs for youth, the elderly and the homeless.
After the abuse allegation was announced, a message supporting Pfleger came from the Cabinet of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, a leadership body composed of more than a dozen parish leaders. In a Jan. 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.”
Pfleger has often been a source of controversy. In 2019 he 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 publicly responded to comments Pfleger made deriding Sen. Hillary Clinton and advocating the candidacy of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
In addition, in 2011 George suspended Pfleger from his ministry at St. Sabina 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.
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.