GOLD COAST — Supporters of Father Michael Pfleger protested outside the Archdiocese of Chicago Thursday to demand church leaders return the beleaguered pastor to his post at St. Sabina Church.
Attorney Andrew M. Stroth, activists Eric Russell and Tio Hardiman, alumni of the Soul Children of Chicago choir and St. Sabina parishioners gathered for the demonstration at the Archdiocesan headquarters, 835 N. Rush St.
Pfleger was asked to step down in October as the Archdiocese investigates claims the popular South Side pastor and activist sexually abused a minor more than 30 years ago.
Eugene Hollander, the attorney representing the accuser, previously said his client is a man in his 40s. He alleged Pfleger abused him on two separate occasions in the 1980s when the man was a member of the Soul Children of Chicago, which regularly rehearsed at St. Sabina, Hollander said.
In a statement at the time, Pfleger said he is “completely innocent” and criticized the archdiocese’s process, saying it is “difficult, disruptive and painful.”
“Priests are vulnerable targets to anyone at any time,” he wrote. “… While I am confident the allegation will also be determined to be unfounded, this process is so unfair and painful to me and to the community I serve. It seems like most of my ministry I have spent fighting to stay a priest and to continue to work for justice, and to serve the good people of St. Sabina’s and our community.”
Stroth, who represents Soul Children choir director Walter Whitman, said the allegations have negatively impacted his client and the choir. The group had to put auditions on hold and pause plans for a fundraising campaign, he said.
“Dr. Whitman just did an an hour and a half interview with investigators. For 41 years, he’s never had any allegations of anything, and now there’s an allegation that someone in his choir was sexually abused,” Stroth said. “He’s saddened and upset, but also very supportive of Father Mike because he knows it’s untrue.”
Whitman and his choir have performed all over the world and recently celebrated their 40th anniversary in July.
“Pfleger supports Black people in Chicago and Black people in America. Nothing’s changed. But the good news is he’s going to be exonerated of these false allegations and he’s going to be back in the church serving Black people,” Stroth said.
The Archdiocese of Chicago declined to comment on the case as it is ongoing but said it “takes every allegation seriously and a thorough and impartial process serves everyone’s interest.”
Sam Williams, who now runs a youth choir at St. Sabina, joined the choir 30 years ago and returned in the mid-aughts to work with Whitman. He said is optimistic Pfleger will be cleared of the allegations.
“Our pastor is always fighting against injustices, so this too shall pass,” Williams said.
Pfleger was ordained in 1975 and became pastor of St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham six years later. He’s been a vociferous activist, protesting gun violence and gun laws, alcohol and tobacco marketing targeting children in minority communities, and racial injustice, among many other issues.
The same year Pfleger began his post at St. Sabina, he adopted an 8-year-old son, Lamar. He adopted another son, Beronti Simms, in 1992 and became a foster parent to Jarvis Franklin in 1997.
Franklin was fatally shot near St. Sabina in May 1998. Simms died in 2012, four days after undergoing surgery.
The latest abuse investigation launched 16 months after Pfleger was reinstated as pastor after the Archdiocese found “no reason to suspect” he was guilty of two previous sexual abuse complaints involving two brothers. A third man also accused Pfleger of sexually abusing him in the 70s. That man did not file a formal complaint but said he came forward to support the brothers and cooperate with the investigation.
Reports of abuse from survivors filed decades later are not uncommon. According to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the average age of a survivor who discloses child sex abuse is 52.
The victim advocacy group criticized Cardinal Blase Cupich during the previous investigation into Pfleger, saying the Archdiocese needed to dissuade public demonstrations in support of the priest, lest it discourages other victims from coming forward.