Column: Don’t Make up Your Mind Yet about the Sexual Abuse Accusations against Rev. Michael Pfleger
By Eric Zorn
January 26, 2021
The accusations against South Side activist priest the Rev. Michael Pfleger are, in a word, revolting.
If they’re true, Pfleger repeatedly sexually abused two boys in the early and mid-1970s, a grotesque, inexcusable and scarring violation of trust and innocence that his accusers — two brothers who now live in Texas — say has haunted them ever since.
If they’re false, Pfleger’s good name is being dragged through the mud and his four decades of service to his parishioners at St. Sabina Church and Chicago’s African American community unfairly tainted. He may never get his reputation back.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been considering both possibilities since the initial allegation arose earlier this month. What to make of this?
Pfleger, 71, is a Chicago legend, a passionate anti-violence advocate whose initiatives and protests were frequently in the headlines. Even his political detractors didn’t doubt his integrity or sincerity.
More than 50 supporters, some wearing shirts reading “We stand with Father Pfleger,” rallied in his defense Monday outside of St. Sabina, saying the man they have long known and respected could not possibly be guilty of the lurid acts alleged in recent interviews with the brothers, now in their 60s. That’s not evidence, of course. Abusers are often good at covering their tracks.
The fact that, before filing a formal allegation with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, one of the brothers wrote a letter to Pfleger asking for a $20,000 payment “to help me move on in this troubled and confused time in my life” smacks of an attempted shakedown. But former FBI agent Jeffrey Rinek, author of “In the Name of the Children: An FBI Agent’s Relentless Pursuit of the Nation’s Worst Predators,” told me Tuesday such a demand is not necessarily an indication that an accusation is false.
“Victims often feel like they’re due something,” Rinek said. “And you can certainly understand why they don’t want to publicize their stories through the court system.”
The Dennis Hastert story comes to mind. The former U.S. House speaker from Yorkville agreed in 2010 to a demand to pay $3.5 million in hush money to a man who accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct when Hastert was a high school wrestling coach before entering politics. A federal judge later called Hastert “a serial child molester” in sentencing him to prison in a related case.
Time is the major enemy of anyone — citizen, church official, juror or prosecutor — trying to sort out truth from fiction in cases that go back many decades, as this one does.
When it comes to sexual abuse of minors, “there are usually no witnesses, and oftentimes no forensic evidence, even in more recent cases,” said Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Obviously, with older cases, it’s more difficult to get access to (potentially corroborating) witnesses, memories may be hazier, and documents may have been lost or destroyed.“
“There is a reason that statutes of limitations exist,” said David F. Pierre Jr., author of “Catholic Priests Falsely Accused” and other books highly skeptical of many allegations against the clergy, as well as the proprietor of The Media Report, a website with a similar message. “It becomes almost impossible after so many years to prove a negative.”
Pierre pointed to a May 2017 report from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that reviewed nearly 500 investigations into clerical sexual abuse in which church officials had reached a conclusion. That report categorized 40% of the allegations as substantiated, 8% as unsubstantiated and 52% as “unable to be proven,” a category that leaves wreckage in the paths of both accusers and the accused.
Rinek, the former FBI agent, said in his experience, it would be very rare for a molester to have offended repeatedly in the 1970s and then never again. “If this priest was a child abuser, other victims will come forward without a doubt,” he said.
If other, more recent accusers come forward in the next few weeks — and church officials should actively encourage anyone who knows anything to come forward — we’ll know more about what to make of the allegations. Or if no one comes forward. Or if Pfleger’s accusers recant — as happened 26 years ago when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s accuser withdrew his charges. Or if Pfleger confesses to wrongdoing. Or if ...
You get the idea. We need to cool the understandable urge to have a hot take on Pfleger, wait and hope the truth comes out.