March 3, 2021
By Christy Gutowski
As the Chicago Archdiocese investigates allegations that the Rev. Michael Pfleger molested two brothers in the 1970s, a third man has come forward to say the priest made an unwanted sexual advance when the accuser was 18.
In an affidavit shared with church officials late Tuesday, the 59-year-old man alleges Pfleger once grabbed him in a sexual manner in the priest’s bedroom area at St. Sabina Church in summer 1979 while the teen pretended to sleep.
Though he was not a minor at the time, the man said he did not consent to the alleged sexual contact with Pfleger, whom he said he met about three years earlier and considered to be a trusted mentor and friend.
The affidavit also alleges the two often drank alcohol and smoked pot together, beginning when the man was 15 or 16, within years of the young priest’s ordination.
Unlike the two brothers, who allege years of sexual abuse, the man said he does not plan to file an independent claim with the archdiocese or to seek a financial settlement. He does not know the brothers, he said, but decided to share his story with church leaders after reading about the backlash and disbelief the brothers have faced from the beloved priest’s loyal flock.
In a telephone interview, the man told the Tribune he provided the affidavit to the brothers’ attorney after a childhood friend urged him for weeks that it was the right thing to do.
The man, a truck driver who does not live in Illinois, said he had little interest in revisiting the past, having found peace in his feelings toward Pfleger and the Catholic church nearly 30 years ago when he achieved sobriety. But he argues his story shows Pfleger was not “a real squeaky clean priest” back then and people should try to keep an open mind as the archdiocese investigates.
“I told (my friend) I’m not getting in the middle of that stuff up there,” said the man, who asked that his name not be made public. “She kept telling me, ‘You know, they’re not going to believe the victims because of who Mike is, and maybe if you talk to somebody and say what you know, it may help the victims with their credibility.’ It finally kind of started sinking in. I thought, ‘I have to say something.’”
The brothers’ allegations, if substantiated, threaten the legacy of a firebrand white minister who heads Chicago’s largest Black Catholic parish and who has fought against racism, violence and poverty throughout his celebrated priesthood.
Cardinal Blase Cupich is requiring Pfleger, 71, to live away from the parish while the matter is investigated. In response, his supporters announced Sunday that St. Sabina will stop paying about $100,000 in monthly assessments to the archdiocese to try to hasten the investigation.
Pfleger has maintained his innocence in comments posted to social media. His legal team has said the brothers’ allegations are false, concocted in hopes of receiving a financial settlement. They noted the younger brother sent Pfleger a letter seeking $20,000 just before he filed a complaint with the archdiocese.
Pfleger also emphatically denies the truck driver’s allegations, his attorneys, James Figliulo and Michael Monico, said late Tuesday. They characterized the release of the affidavit as an attempt “to keep the story alive” in the media.
“He never touched this man in any sexual or inappropriate way, at any time,” the lawyers said in a statement. “He knew (the man) as a teenager at St Sabina’s, but did not take him to jazz clubs or give him alcohol or marijuana.”
All of the allegations, they wrote, “are wholly inconsistent with Father Pfleger’s character and the recollections of the thousands of young men and women who have known Father Pfleger over the decades, including the accusers’ friends during the years that these alleged incidents purportedly occurred.”
The two brothers, who are in their early 60s and live in Texas, alleged that Pfleger molested them dozens of times over several years beginning in their preteens. They said the abuse began in the early 1970s at Precious Blood Catholic Church while Pfleger was a seminary student. They also alleged later incidents at St. Sabina.
Their attorney, Eugene Hollander, said the archdiocese already spoke to the younger of the two men as part of its investigation and will conduct a separate online interview with the older brother Wednesday.
The truck driver, who is a couple of years younger than the brothers, lived in a different part of the city and did not attend Precious Blood. The man said he does recall the older brother being involved in St. Sabina events one summer years ago.
“He’s not connected to the brothers at all and has nothing to gain by coming forward,” said Hollander, who has represented victims of defrocked priest Daniel McCormack in another infamous abuse case. “So that’s what makes (it) incredibly powerful, because it provides this crucial corroboration.”
Born in Louisiana, the truck driver said he moved to Chicago’s South Side in the second grade. An only child raised by a single mother, he attended St. Sabina Academy through eighth grade, archdiocese records show. The man said he was active in the school and church, singing in the choir and serving as an altar boy, honor guard and lector. He was involved in the teen club and occasionally played piano at Mass.
He met Pfleger after the priest arrived at St. Sabina in 1975 when the teen worked in a summer youth program, the man said. He recalled Pfleger bucked the stereotypical image of a traditional priest, wearing regular clothes and smoking cigarettes.
“He was relatable, down to earth,” the man said. “We hadn’t seen a priest like that before. He opened up the parish to the kids. All of a sudden there was stuff to do at the church besides just Mass and school. He was so different than any other priest anybody had ever seen. People were just, like, infatuated with him. He could do no wrong.”
Though he was “a church kid,” the man said he also regularly drank alcohol and smoked pot in grammar school. The man said he began partying with Pfleger in either his freshman or sophomore year of high school.
He accompanied Pfleger and a few adult parishioners to jazz clubs like Rick’s Café and the Jazz Showcase, according to the affidavit. When they smoked pot together, according to the man, it was just the two of them and typically in the priest’s bedroom area in the St. Sabina rectory.
“Back then, that stuff wasn’t looked at as something so harmful or terrible,” he said of his alleged underage barhopping with a priest. “It was just kind of, like, having fun.”
The man said he cut off contact with Pfleger shortly after an alleged encounter in summer 1979. At the time, he was 18 and a recent graduate of Quigley South High School.
The man said he had occasionally slept over at St. Sabina, beginning when he was trying to help catch someone who had been breaking into the church gymnasium after dances. Other sleepovers occurred, he said, when he was too drunk or high to walk home.
One night, the man alleges in the affidavit, Pfleger“grabbed my penis over my clothes” when the priest thought the teen was sleeping, according to the affidavit. The man said he pushed Pfleger’s hand away, angrily confronted him and then left.
“That was the end of the relationship right there,” he said. “That killed it.”
The truck driver said he told a handful of family and friends about the incident several years later.
“Look, even though I was 18 at the time, the way he went about doing it, waiting until I was sleeping, that’s predatory,” the man said. “That’s wrong.”
Feeling angry and betrayed, he left St. Sabina and his Catholic faith behind, he said. The man said he is now a devout Baptist.
In late 1980, he moved out of Illinois, then returned to Chicago for a few years in the mid-1980s and became addicted to cocaine, he said. Public court records show he was arrested out of state on a few minor charges and received probation in a 1989 robbery. He has maintained his sobriety since his 33rd birthday in 1994, he said.
“I don’t have any blame for anyone for the life that I lived,” he said. “It was my choice. I was a church kid, but I had an interest — a curiosity — for those streets.”
The man said he reached out to Pfleger a few times over the years. Around 2007, he said, he called the priest after traveling to Chicago to escape a hurricane in his state and asked for a few hundred dollars to take his then-girlfriend’s daughters to see tourist attractions. He said Pfleger gave him the money.
He said they last spoke after the death of the truck driver’s mother in 2014. A step in his recovery, he said, was to do something nice for another person toward whom he felt resentment. The man said he decided to donate his mother’s fur coat to St. Sabina and asked Pfleger to sell it and use the money to help parish children, in her memory. He said Pfleger responded with a note of thanks.
“That got rid of all those hard feelings,” he said. “Everything was erased. That’s how I dealt with it.”
He said his decision to come forward was a hard one but he feels it was the right thing to do.
“This has nothing to do with my life today,” he said. “But I have a friend who always says that nothing happens in God’s world by mistake. … I’m supposed to do this and so I’m just doing what God put in front of me to do.”