Chicago parish fiercely backs priest after sex abuse claims

CHICAGO (AP) — When her teenage son was murdered outside a church in 2006, Pam Bosley contacted ministers around Chicago, hoping someone would help make sense of it.

Only one wrote back.

Michael Pfleger, a charismatic priest of a thriving Black Catholic parish, inspired her to become an activist and recruited her to run his South Side church’s violence prevention office.

Stories like Bosley’s are recurrent at St. Sabina Church, a close-knit community that’s been a social activism hub for 40 years under Pfleger. But the white priest’s job, his reputation in a Black community that’s long respected him, and the parish’s future are in jeopardy because three men — two who are Black and the third whose race hasn’t been made public — have accused him of sexually abusing them decades ago.

After the first allegations surfaced in January, the Archdiocese of Chicago temporarily removed the 71-year-old priest to investigate, leading to fierce backlash from parishioners trying to clear his name. They’ve flooded the archdiocese’s phone lines, staged rallies, threatened to withhold $100,000 in monthly dues and sent 1,300 letters. They’ve also challenged the accusers’ accounts.

“Father Pfleger is our family,” Bosley said. “We are not going to stop. We need him back.”

The accusations sent shockwaves through the church in the largely Black and low-income Auburn Gresham neighborhood and beyond. Often clashing with archdiocese leaders, Pfleger has made a name for himself by using unconventional tactics such as paying prostitutes to counsel them and defacing alcohol and cigarette billboards. He also boosted neighborhood development by opening an employment center and senior housing near his Gothic-style church. He inspired John Cusack’s character in Spike Lee’s 2015 movie “Chi-raq.”

Pfleger’s initial accusers were two brothers in their 60s who haven’t publicly identified themselves. They allege that Pfleger groomed them as children and abused them at Chicago-area rectories. Their attorney, Eugene Hollander, said they “went through hell.”

Their stories led a third man, who hasn’t been named, to come forward this month. Through a lawyer, he alleges that Pfleger grabbed his crotch in 1979, when he was 18.

The brothers’ complaint led to archdiocese and police investigations. Charges haven’t been filed, but Illinois has no statute of limitations for major sex crimes. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services completed its review, concluding there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show that Pfleger was a threat.

But the archdiocese is still investigating. Church officials said their investigation would note DCFS’s findings, but that their process shouldn’t be rushed.

“Giving a case special treatment undermines the credibility of its outcome and ultimately serves neither the accuser nor the accused,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “Justice demands a thorough and impartial process and there is no timeframe in which we ‘should’ make a determination.”

Pfleger moved out of the rectory and has laid low while living elsewhere in Chicago during the investigation. He declined to be interviewed, but he tweeted that he’s innocent: “When this is over, which I hope is soon, I will have much more to say.”

His attorney, Jim Figliulo, said: “It is really unfair that his reputation is being smeared by these false charges.”

Pfleger was ordained in 1975 and assigned to St. Sabina. He became a priest six years later at 31 — then the youngest full-time pastor in the archdiocese.

He shook things up, encouraging gospel music and helping teenagers get jobs, recalled 54-year-old congregant Stephanie Falls-Warr.

“Back then, the youth were to be seen, not really to be heard,” she said. “He really gave us a voice.”

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