Longtime advocate for community, lightning rod for critics, Pfleger forced to watch others carry on his work
By Annie Sweeney And William Lee
January 09, 2021
In his years of seemingly relentless advocating and fighting for social justice in Chicago, the Rev. Michael Pfleger has often charged into the center of controversy, publicly defying and rebuking his church and city leaders on everything from gun violence to race and economic disparities.
He has been arrested while protesting outside a suburban gun shop. He ran afoul of his downtown church bosses, earning suspensions. He lost a foster child to gun violence and faced hateful reactions in some Chicago enclaves after standing with victims of police shootings.
Throughout, Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest from a white working-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, has built trust and amassed a dedicated following, leading with a righteous fury that garnered national attention from his base at St. Sabina in Auburn Gresham, the city’s largest Black Catholic congregation.
News that the Chicago Archdiocese had received a child sexual abuse complaint against Pfleger has him confronting one of the greatest challenges of his career, one that could threaten both the legacy and reputation of the driven, passionate ministry he has built over 40 years.
In the wake of the complaint, received Jan. 4, Pfleger has agreed to step away from St. Sabina while the archdiocese investigates. Law enforcement officials have also been notified.
At St. Sabina, the parish leaders stood on the rectory entrance steps Thursday to announce a series of events planned to support Pfleger, saying they back him and have confidence he will be cleared.
They also pledged to continue the mission, including tackling head-on the week’s violent attack on the nation’s Capitol, assuming a role Pfleger would most certainly have taken by denouncing endemic racism and the failure of religious leaders, particularly those who support President Donald Trump, to denounce it.
“This has been a very difficult week,” said St. Sabina Associate Minister Kimberly Lymore. “On Tuesday we were told that our beloved pastor had to step away from the church. On Wednesday, we witnessed the horrific actions of President Trump and his supporters in D.C.”
Like others, including President-elect Joe Biden, Lymore said events at the Capitol might have been tragically worse if those involved had been from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I have not heard any statements from the faith community leaders, especially those who still support Trump,” she said. “Nor have I heard any words of healing, of hope or reconciliation from those very churches to the disenfranchised and people who are hurting in this country.”
But even without Pfleger’s voice, Lymore offered a commitment to the church’s community that it would “continue to be a beacon of light and hope” in the face of challenges including racism and entrenched violence in Chicago.
Pfleger has been silenced before in his long, colorful career.
He was suspended twice by Cardinal Francis George, including for two weeks in 2008 after a rant against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton that some criticized as racist. In 2011, he faced suspension again after he publicly pushed back against George’s suggestion he would name Pfleger president of Leo Catholic High School, removing him from his beloved parish.
But news of an abuse allegation certainly has more serious potential consequences.
Few details have been released about the complaint, which the archdiocese announced Tuesday evening in a written statement. It refers to an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor from “more than 40 years ago.”
“Guilt or innocence should not be assumed,” the statement noted.
Church officials also said in the statement that Pfleger has agreed to cooperate fully and will live away from the parish while the matter is investigated.
Chicago’s Catholic Church leadership, as well as that in other cities, has a long history of failing to fully investigate clergy abuse.
Pfleger is among the highest-profile priests in the Chicago area to face such allegations. In 1993, then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused, with the allegation later dropped. The Rev. John Smyth, who ran Maryville Academy for troubled youths, was accused in 2019. Smyth has since died, but his attorney denied the allegation at the time.
That the accusation against Pfleger dates back more than 40 years is not unusual, according to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an international organization that was founded in Chicago and offers support to victims.
According to a statement on the group’s website related to the accusation against Pfleger, the average age of a childhood abuse survivor coming forward in the United States is 52.
“If anything, these allegations fall within the expected time frame for reporting,” the statement reads. “This delay is normal and understandable given the fact that the accused is a powerful and well-respected member of the community. We hope that local police, prosecutors, and the Attorney General’s office will investigate these allegations fully and release their findings to the public.”
Larry Antonsen, the Chicago leader for SNAP, said in an interview that to this day there are victims who attend support groups who have never reported what happened to them to any authorities.
“It is never easy,” Antonsen said. “It’s especially high-profile for the person making the accusation.”
Pfleger, who issued a written statement this week, said he was thankful for the support and prayers he has received and said he was praying for the person who reported him.
Several St. Sabina parishioners have also expressed support to that person.
“We’re saddened. We are faithful, praying people (and) we are praying for both the accuser and for Father Mike,” longtime parishioner Barbara Stubblefield, 56, told the Tribune.
Lymore on Thursday professed an abiding commitment to Pfleger before outlining the upcoming events, including an anti-violence march and prayer vigil, that are dedicated to him.
“We do not believe the accusation,” Lymore said. “Pastor Pfleger’s 45 years of ministry speaks for itself. We hope that the investigation will be swift and impartial. ... We continue to maintain the ministry and community outreach that is the foundation of the faith community of St. Sabina. We are people of faith, and we stand with and pray for all victims of injustice.”
The events announced for the week lead up to the parish’s annual commemoration of the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who served as a model for Pfleger’s work.
With the investigation pending, Pfleger stands to miss the events.
“Of course it hurts us,” Stubblefield said of his absence. “We’re saddened. He is not only a spiritual leader to us, he is a good friend. His energy alone will be missed.”
‘Deeply in the trenches’
For Pfleger, St. Sabina has been home for nearly his entire priesthood. Ordained by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1975, he was appointed pastor of St. Sabina in 1981 when he was just 31.
In his time there, Pfleger has carved out an unusual liturgical style for a Roman Catholic priest, trading traditional hourlong masses for extended services that reflect a Black spiritual style, with stirring music and a thunderous preaching style similar to that of Black religious leaders.
All of it reflects the profound influence King has had in Pfleger’s life and his ministry. As a teen, he has recalled, he heard King speak in Marquette Park — and also watched his neighbors spit, curse and hurl rocks at King.
Pfleger has challenged other stereotypes of Catholic religious life as well, adopting three sons, only to lose one in 1998 to Chicago’s gun violence.
Over the years, as St. Sabina drew Black Catholics back into its fold, Pfleger waged fights for justice on several fronts, joining forces with other community and political leaders to rally against the proliferation of tobacco billboards and liquor stores in his neighborhood.
He has created social service and outreach programs and mentors young organizers. He has been one of the most consistent voices in the call for solutions to Chicago’s violence issue, organizing a march late last month at the close of one of the most deadly years in recent memory.
Carlos Nelson, chief executive officer for the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp., said the news had saddened him, especially because of Pfleger’s unusually large presence in the neighborhood, and his unwavering commitment to all those in need of help.
“I would venture to say none of us has ... committed their entire lives and livelihood the way he has in 40 consecutive years,” said Nelson, whose office is across from the church. “He is living deeply in the trenches.”
Like others, Nelson expressed concern for the person who came forward, saying he has “to acknowledge that there is a potential victim who could be carrying this weight.”
After the news was announced Tuesday evening, Nelson said he left his office and drove around the block, glancing into St. Sabina’s rectory. He said he could see lights were on, but felt uncertain about reaching out.
“Whatever comes of this,” Nelson said, “he has been a great and consequential leader in this Black community for more than four decades.”
Lymore, the associate minister, acknowledged worries that both the reputation and legacy of St. Sabina could be altered. But such consequential work, she said, will most certainly continue.
“I have been a member since 1983. This is how we’ve been trained,” she said. “It has been instilled in us. We are socially active. You hear from him because you all (the media) go to him. Right now ... we are stepping up and doing what we do as people of St. Sabina.”