The Rev. Michael Pfleger has been removed from his ministry at St. Sabina Church as the Archdiocese of Chicago investigates another decades-old claim of sexual abuse against the popular priest.
The new accusation, dating back more than 30 years, was announced by Cardinal Blase Cupich Saturday — less than two years after Pfleger was reinstated at his Auburn Gresham parish after an investigation that cleared him of wrongdoing on unrelated accusations.
In a letter to parishioners delivering the “difficult news,” Cupich said Pfleger agreed to leave the parish while the new claim is investigated. It also has been reported to police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
Pfleger, 73, vehemently denied the new accusation in a letter posted to his church’s website, saying he’s been “removed from all public ministry while they investigate again.”
“Let me be clear — I am completely innocent of this accusation. While I am confident that the new allegation will also be determined to be unfounded, this process is so unfair and painful to me and to the community I serve,” Pfleger wrote.
The South Side priest’s latest accuser is a man in his late 40s who says Pfleger sexually abused him twice in the late 1980s during choir rehearsals, according to the man’s attorney, Eugene Hollander. The abuse allegedly happened in the St. Sabina rectory.
Pfleger was first benched from St. Sabina in January of 2021 after he was accused of sexually abusing a minor more than 40 years ago. Later that month, the brother of Pfleger’s first accuser came forward with his own allegations. Then in March, a 59-year-old man came forward to bolster the brothers’ claims, alleging Pfleger molested him at St. Sabina when he was 18.
Following a five-month investigation into the claims of child sex abuse involving the brothers — who are also represented by Hollander — an Archdiocese review board found “insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations.” Pfleger returned to Sunday service in June 2021.
Pfleger has served as pastor at St. Sabina Church since 1981, becoming one of Chicago’s most well-known voices against gun violence and leading annual peace marches that routinely draw hundreds of people.
In his defiant response to the new accusation, Pfleger said, “The same lawyer whose clients made unfounded allegations of misconduct against me last year has found a new client to make different allegations against me.”
He said the archdiocese’s process leaves priests “presumed guilty until proven innocent.”
“I know I am a high-profile person, an outspoken person and a controversial person. That has resulted in jealousy, attacks and hate,” Pfleger wrote. “Although that is hurtful, I have come to understand that unfortunately, it is part of my life.”
Parishioners and workers outside the church at 1210 W. 78th Place Saturday vowed to stand by Pfleger through the latest investigation.
“Here we go again,” said Lamar Johnson, who coordinates the church’s youth activist program. He called it “a clear sign of another smear campaign.”
“I can’t believe they continue to come after this strong man who is doing so much for the community,” parishioner Pam Bosley said. “We’ve got his back. We’re going to continue to be his voice.”
Youth mentor Joseph Saunders said “to this community, Father Mike is an oasis in a desert… We are enraged because it hurts this man to be away from his family.
“I know his heart. There’s no second thought of ‘maybe.’ I’ve been by his side for 20 plus years,” Saunders said.
“We are a tight-knit, family-oriented church,” Rochelle Crump, a consultant at St. Sabina’s and former chief of African American Services for the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services, said before entering the church for a Saturday evening mass. “We love our pastor… Everything he’s done has been for the community.”
Several others declined to comment as they entered the church.
Cupich wrote to St. Sabina parishioners: “Knowing this is a painful time for your community, I assure you of my prayers.”
Over the years, Pfleger has clashed with cardinals and politicians but has managed to stay at St. Sabina, one of the largest African American churches in the city, for decades despite parish priests typically serving one or two six-year terms before being rotated to other assignments.
Cardinal Francis George suspended Pfleger briefly in 2008 after the priest mocked Hillary Clinton from the pulpit as she ran against Pfleger’s friend, Barack Obama. Pfleger apologized and soon was back at work.
The Rev. David Jones will handle the administration of St. Sabina until early November, when the Rev. Thulani Magwaza will take over pending the outcome of the investigation.