CHICAGO (AP) — Nationally known activist Chicago priest the Rev. Michael Pfleger will be reinstated as the leader of his parish after an investigation found “insufficient reason to suspect” he sexually abused children, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago announced Monday.
The decision from the archdiocese comes more than four months after it asked Pfleger to step aside and told his parish that its Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review had received an allegation that the priest had sexually abused a minor more than 40 years ago. Three accusers ultimately came forward, with one saying he was 18 when Pfleger sexually abused him.
Pfleger, who is white, had fierce support from leaders and parishioners at St. Sabina, a Black church in the city’s largely Black and low-income Auburn Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Parishioners cheered as he arrived for a news conference outside St. Sabina on Monday afternoon, and Pfleger jokingly said he couldn’t believe how many people had left work to be there.
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.”
Eugene Hollander, an attorney for the accusers, said his clients were disheartened and were considering whether to file a lawsuit.
“You had not one, not two, but three victims of alleged molestation,” he said. “They are of course very, very disappointed with the findings.”
In a letter to the parish, Cardinal Blase Cupich said he had accepted the finding of the Office for Child Abuse Investigations and Review and the archdiocese’s Independent Review Board.
Two brothers, both Black and now in their 60s, alleged in January that Pfleger groomed them as children and abused them at rectories in the Chicago area. They accused the priest of taking advantage of two Black boys who trusted him.
A third man later accused Pfleger of grabbing his crotch over his clothes in 1979. The 59-year-old man said he was 18 at the time and pretended to sleep.
None of the men have been publicly identified.
While the third man, who lives outside Illinois, had been reluctant to tell his story, the brothers felt compelled to speak up, Hollander said.
“For them to move forward and complete themselves, make themselves whole, they had to tell their stories,” he said.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services completed its own review in February, concluding there was no credible evidence of child abuse or neglect by Pfleger. A spokesman said the agency cannot investigate allegations of abuse by an adult victim but focuses on whether children are currently at risk.
Attorneys for the accusers and Pfleger have previously acknowledged a police investigation of the abuse allegations. Illinois has no statute of limitations for filing charges in major sex crimes.
A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department said its investigation is still open. A representative for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said police have not presented any information for the office to review or determine if criminal charges are appropriate.
Pfleger was ordained in 1975 and assigned to St. Sabina Church, then became pastor six years later. He has been credited with reviving the parish. Dubbed “Father Mike” by parishioners, he is known nationally for his dramatic approach to activism aimed at chronic problems in the city, including defacement of alcohol and cigarette billboards and paying prostitutes to accept counseling.
Upset by the removal of their pastor, parishioners had tied up the archdiocese’s phone lines, held rallies, sent letters and threatened to withhold $100,000 in monthly dues.
Pfleger told the crowd at Monday’s news conference that he will return to work emboldened, stronger and “more ready to fight than ever in my life” with a focus on violence and inequality in their neighborhood and in Chicago.
“False accusations were put out against me … and I was immediately put out,” Pfleger said. “You’re guilty until proven innocent. And it’s been hell.”
Cupich said Pfleger’s reinstatement is effective the first weekend of June.
“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,” Cupich said. “He has agreed to do so.”
The archdiocese’s first statement on Pfleger’s reinstatement said its review found “no reason” to suspect Pfleger of abuse before sending a second statement that changed the phrase to “insufficient reason.”
A spokeswoman said the Independent Review Board’s letter on its findings used the term “insufficient reason” and the public statement was updated to match that.
Associated Press reporter Sophia Tareen contributed to this story.