A small but vocal group of supporters gathered in front of St. Sabina Church in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood on Wednesday to show support for Rev. Michael Pfleger, who is facing allegations of child sex abuse from more than 40 years ago.
“Many, many, many people who know him, who’ve been mentored by him, all step forward and say, ‘This is not Father Michael Pfleger — this is not the man that we know,’” said activist Ja’mal Green to a crowd of a dozen people.
He acknowledged the distrust of the Catholic Church with regard to child sex abuse allegations, but he said “this is a very different situation this is a very different priest, this is a very different church.”
Green said he hopes the Archdiocese of Chicago’s investigation is “very swift” and that “when they’re done, they exonerate [Pfleger’s] name and… publicly apologize to the St. Sabina community.”
Cardinal Blase Cupich asked Pfleger to step aside from the parish ministry after the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review learned of the decades-old abuse allegation and sent this letter to the congregation. The Archdiocese of Chicago instated the oversight office in 1992. Over the years, it has paid millions of dollars in settlements to alleged victims of child sex abuse.
Pfleger himself addressed the allegation in a Facebook post Wednesday morning, saying he was “devastated” by the accusation, but that he trusts God and he thanks the messages of support from across the country.
“I am devastated, hurt and yes, angry, but I am first a person of faith,” Pfleger wrote, asking for prayer for him and for the St. Sabina community. “My life is more than a 40 year old accusation, and on that and my faith I will stand.”
The 71-year-old white priest and community organizer is renowned beyond Chicago as an outspoken critic of gun violence and economic injustice against Black communities. In 2018, he led a march against gun violence that shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway. Most recently, on New Year’s Eve, Pfleger organized a downtown demonstration in memory of gun violence victims from 2020.
“He’s been a true disciple, a true leader, and a believer in Christ, so I just want to thank him personally for the support that he has shown us — all of us,” said Michael Thomas, an Auburn Gresham resident who has known Pfleger for 40 years. Thomas showed up to St. Sabina to show support for Pfleger, along with parents of young people whom the priest has helped over the years.
Pfleger has been pastor of St. Sabina, Chicago’s largest Black Catholic parish, since 1981. The church also runs a school, St. Sabina Academy, with pre-K through eighth-grade students.
“Whenever something happens, Father Pfleger is there to support you,” said one St. Sabina congregant attendee named Jacqueline, who asked that her last name not be used. “I’ve had two sons that were shot in Englewood. I came out and reached out to [Pfleger], he did everything he could to change their life, and I see him as a helping, giving person — he’s not the person that could do anything to hurt anybody.”
Eric Russell, another Black activist who has worked with Pfleger, called the priest “our blue-eyed soul brother,” adding that “every plague that has plagued our community, [Pfleger] has been on the front line.”
Russell said he believes the accusations are “absolutely unfounded” and that Pfleger has “committed his life to people that look like us.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.