AUBURN GRESHAM — St. Sabina congregants are continuing to rally behind beleaguered pastor Michael Pfleger, who is again facing allegations of child sex abuse.
Pfleger was asked to step down from his position at St. Sabina Catholic Church again Saturday, 16 months after the Archdiocese of Chicago reinstated him after a months-long investigation into other child sex abuse allegations.
Authorities are investigating a new claim against Pfleger after a man alleged the priest sexually abused him more than 30 years ago while they were a minor, according to a statement from the archdiocese.
The man, who is in his 40s, said Pfleger abused him in the ’80s when he was a member of the Soul Children of Chicago Choir, according to a statement from attorney Eugene Hollander, who is representing the man. The man said Pfleger sexually abused him on two separate occasions in the parish rectory, Hollander said.
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 an abuse survivor who discloses child sex abuse is 52. And in the past two years, “two new Catholic clergy or personnel have been charged for sexual abuse per month,” according to the organization.
In a statement, Pfleger denied the allegations and said he is innocent, saying, “Priests are vulnerable targets to anyone at any time.” The archdiocese’s process is “difficult, disruptive and painful,” Pfleger said.
Thulani Magwaza will serve as the administrator of the parish and school community when he returns from a family visit in November. David Jones will serve as the church’s temporary administrator in the meantime.
When Pfleger was removed from his seat last year, church members and community leaders rallied behind the pastor, saying he’d made important contributions to the South Side over the decades. The archdiocese typically moves pastors across parishes, but Pfleger has never left St. Sabina.
More than a year later, longtime supporters reaffirmed they are supportive of Pfleger but will let the investigative process takes its course.
Joseph Saunders, a youth mentor at the South Side church, on Monday called Pfleger’s removal “devastating.”
“It’s like revisiting a nightmare,” he said. “The first allegation was the longest five months ever. I hope that it won’t take as long as it did last time. I’m in prayer that this hurries up and is unfounded like it was last time.”
Saunders said he’s texted Pfleger and told him “to be strong,” he said. There’s nothing else he can think to say, Saunders said.
“We’re not backing down,” Saunders said. “We’re going to fight. We’re going to stand with him.”
Erica Nanton, a community organizer at St. Sabina, said she was in “shock” when she heard the news Saturday. She booked an emergency babysitter and drove to the church, she said.
“We were like, ‘Are you serious? Is this really happening again?’ It was tough,” Nanton said. “It feels disheartening to be here just a little over a year again.”
As a community organizer at the church, Nanton’s role is to provide political and civic education for the community with a focus on social justice, she said. She will continue to advocate for Pfleger’s innocence, she said.
“I stand with Father Mike, and I believe in who he is and what I have been able to see in how he navigates people’s spaces with respect,” Nanton said.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) said he’s known Pfleger for more than 40 years. In that time, he’s been a “person of utmost integrity,” Brookins said.
If the allegations are proven to be untrue, he hopes Pfleger will “be a crusader that helps make this community whole,” he said.
“Everybody is innocent until proven guilty,” Brookins said. “I hope and pray that the archdiocese will come to a swift conclusion exonerating him.
“I would like to believe that the allegations are not true. I hope that an independent investigation will conclude that same thing and that he will be back to doing good work in the community.”
Pfleger was first removed from St. Sabina in January 2021 after two brothers alleged he groomed and sexually abused them for years, beginning when they were around 12 and 13 years old. Hollander also represented the brothers. In March of that year, a third man accused the church leader of abusing him in the ’70s when the man was 18 years old.
In February 2021, investigators at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services examining if Pfleger posed a risk to current children deemed they couldn’t find “credible evidence of child abuse or neglect” that rose “to the level required” by state law and department rules.
In May 2021, Pfleger was reinstated at the South Side church after leaders at the archdiocese found “no reason to suspect” the pastor was guilty of sexual abuse alleged by the three men. He returned to the pulpit in June 2021 with a packed house, including director Spike Lee.
In a release following the reinstatement, Hollander said the brothers who alleged Pfleger abused them were “shocked and deeply disappointed” in the archdiocese’s decision, but they were “proud that they came forward and delivered their truths” despite the outcome.
In a fiery sermon that June morning, Pfleger called his reinstatement the “return of the fight.”
“There are people watching today that are not happy I’m back,” Pfleger told his congregation. “But take off your party hat and blow out the candle. I’m back.”
Pfleger’s work has long centered around violence prevention and neighborhood improvement.
In January, he partnered with a nonprofit organization and state representatives to legalize the Mychal Moultry Jr. Funeral and Burial Assistance Act. It was signed into state law in May.
Earlier this year, the city awarded the church a $500,000 grant to provide corridor ambassadors along local retail streets as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative.