St. Sabina Church stands by Rev. Pfleger amid new sex abuse allegation: ‘Father Mike, this is your army’

Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago IL]

October 16, 2022

By David Struett

During Sunday Mass, parishioners wore shirts saying, ‘We stand with Father Pfleger.’ The popular priest denies the latest allegation — the fourth against him.

A day after the Rev. Michael Pfleger was accused again of child sex abuse, the popular priest was absent from Sunday Mass at St. Sabina Church. But he was the focus of the service.

“Show Father Mike what it means to be persistent in prayer,” the Rev. Tom Walsh told the congregation during the 2 12 hour service punctuated by support for Pfleger.

Walsh directed congregants to face a camera at the rear of the church broadcasting the service on the internet, where he said Pfleger would be watching.

“Father Mike, this is your army. These are your warriors,” Walsh said. “We’ve got you. We’re holding up your hands in prayer.”

The new allegation, dating back more than 30 years, come less than two years after Pfleger was reinstated at his Auburn Gresham parish after an investigation that cleared him of wrongdoing on unrelated accusations. Pfleger has been removed from the ministry for the duration of the investigation.

Near the end of the Mass, Walsh said he was obligated to read a letter from Cardinal Blase Cupich outlining the new allegation against Pfleger.

After reading it, Walsh crumpled up the letter to some applause and looked back, saying, “Oops, sorry.”

Several parishioners in the pews wore shirts reading, “We stand with Father Pfleger.”

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, 73, has denied the latest allegation. He is not facing criminal charges.

Choir director Walter Whitman denounced the allegations and said Pfleger was a “man of integrity.”

During rehearsals of the choir, named the Soul Children of Chicago, there were always chaperones and parents watching over the children, Whitman said in a statement through his attorney Andrew M. Stroth.

SNAP, a national group that advocates for victims of church sex abuse, said that despite Pfleger’s celebrity, everyone should assume the accusations are real. In a statement, the group called on Cupich to work harder to “get to the truth about allegations.”

“Fame frequently shields predators,” the group said in a statement. “The Archdiocese of Chicago is in a difficult position: it does not want to be sued and lose money; therefore, it has a solid motive to utilize its internal review board to attempt to resolve the issue. Perhaps, after four allegations, it is time to sit Pfleger down and support these brave victims, as well as the others who may still be sitting in silence.”

Pfleger was first benched 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 allegation. Then in March, a 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 Pfleger was guilty. Pfleger returned to Sunday service in June 2021.

Pfleger has been a longtime popular leader at the church and was allowed by the archdiocese to skirt residency limits and remain its permanent pastor. Pfleger fostered a son, Jarvis Franklin, who was killed by stray gunfire in 1998. He also had two adopted sons, one of whom died of a sudden illness in 2012.

Pfleger was portrayed in the 2015 Spike Lee film “Chi-Raq” by actor John Cusack. Pfleger often draws attention for violence prevention demonstrations and periodic “peace walks” held during violent summer months.

Outside Sunday’s Mass, parishioner Joyce Maltbia said she believed Pfleger would be proven innocent. She lamented that accusers seem to attack the people doing good in the community.

“He’s really ministering to the people. He’s doing what Jesus said. He’s a servant,” Maltbia said. “And anybody can just walk up and say, ‘Oh, Father Mike touched me.’ And then they snatch him out. … I’m just sick of it. He does not deserve it.”