Father James Altman was not the only controversial Midwestern priest in the news this week.
Father Michael Pfleger, the Chicago priest-social justice activist who is of a decidedly more liberal bent than the arch-conservative Father Altman, has been reinstated to active ministry after an investigation found ““insufficient reason to suspect” that he sexually abused children, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced Monday.
Earlier this year, the archdiocese received allegations of child sexual abuse against Father Pfleger, the longtime pastor of St. Sabina Church, a Black parish in a largely Black and low-income neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The archdiocesan Independent Review Board, assisted by the archdiocese’s Office of Child Abuse Investigation and Review as well as outside investigators, reviewed the allegations.
In a prepared statement, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, said the the Review Board “has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations. Having given careful consideration to their decision, which I accept, I now inform you that I am reinstating Father Pfleger to his position of Senior Pastor of the Faith Community of St. Sabina, effective the weekend of June 5-6, 2021.”
The cardinal further said:
“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.
The weekend he will return is the Feast of Corpus Christi when we celebrate that we are one in the Body of Christ, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. It is in this spirit that I ask you to welcome back Father Pfleger, thereby helping him take up again the ministry that has distinguished St. Sabina in the archdiocese and beyond.
This past year has been a time of great trial for us all, and our church, our city and society are in need of your witness to Jesus’ love. Please know you will have my support and prayers as you continue to be a light in the community.”
Father Pfleger has long enjoyed support among his parishioners. The Associated Press reported that many in his flock cheered as Father Pfleger arrived Monday afternoon for a news conference outside St. Sabina, and that Pfleger “jokingly said he couldn’t believe how many people had left work to be there.”
The Associated Press reports:
He thanked church leaders and parishioners for supporting him in the “most difficult and challenging time” that made him frustrated, angry, depressed and discouraged.
“I’m a man of faith but I’m also a human being who hurts and who bleeds,” he said. “I’ve been discouraged at times. I wanted to give up … but I love this church too much to walk away.”
Meanwhile, Eugene Hollander, an attorney for Father Pfleger’s accusers, told the Associated Press that his clients were disheartened and were considering whether to file a lawsuit.
“You had not one, not two, but three victims of alleged molestation,” Hollander said, according to the AP. “They are of course very, very disappointed with the findings.”
According to published reports, two brothers – both Black and in their 60s – alleged in January that Father Pfleger had groomed them as children and abused them at rectories in the Chicago area. A third man, now 59, also accused Father Pfleger of groping him in 1979, according to the AP.
Around the time of the third allegation, St. Sabina’s pastoral staff posted a letter on the parish website attacking Hollander and his “dishonest clients” while voicing their support for Father Pfleger.
At Monday’s press conference, Father Pfleger said he would “continue to pray for the two brothers” and was returning to the parish “more emboldened” to champion the issues that have long motivated him and his parish, according to published reports.
Christopher White reported via the National Catholic Reporter:
“This has been the most difficult and challenging time in my entire life,” Pfleger said through tears. “I’m so relieved and glad that this nightmare is over.”
“I promise you that I will return with renewed energy, with a deepened commitment to St. Sabina, to the city of Chicago and to this community that we serve,” he told reporters, while being cheered on by parishioners lining the church steps behind him.