Fr Michael Pfleger, the firebrand pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago, is the subject of a new child sex abuse allegation this month—the fourth in less than two years for the nationally known activist. The accusation, like those in early 2021, concerns incidents allegedly occurring decades ago during Pfleger’s early ministry.
The 73-year-old priest was informed of the news on Friday, after which he was asked to step away from the parish and released a statement to parishioners.
“Once again, I have been removed from all public ministry while they investigate,” he said in a lengthy statement touting the church’s recovery from his suspension last year, which lasted four months until May 2021.
“Let me be clear—I am completely innocent of this accusation.”
Pfleger's latest accuser, an unnamed individual now in their 40s, formerly sang in the Soul Children of Chicago, a popular children’s gospel group that conducted rehearsals at St. Sabina during the period in question, in the late 1980s.
The abuse is alleged to have occurred during choir practices on two separate occasions in the church rectory.
Pfleger has been the pastor of St. Sabina since 1981, making him one of the nation’s longest-tenured Catholic priests at one parish. The predominantly Black church, located in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on the city’s South Side, is of the Chicago archdiocese’s most vibrant and financially successful—and threatened to withhold roughly $100,000 in monthly assessments after Pfleger’s suspension last year dragged on.
Despite his well-known activism against racism and gun violence, and the parish’s much-lauded community outreach and service, Pfleger’s time at St. Sabina has been peppered with a number of explosive controversies.
Among them was his suspension by Cardinal Francis George, OMI in 2011 for reportedly refusing to accept a new assignment in the archdiocese. Pfleger threatened to schismatize if forced to move, and George lifted the suspension a little over three weeks later.
Pfleger also made headlines when he became one of the few Catholic priests in the nation to successfully adopt a child, having joined a group of Chicago priests attempting to do so beginning in 1981. At least one of those priests, Kenneth Brigham, was later found to have abused children in the archdiocese.
Pfleger’s mentor, the late Black priest George Clements, was also among those who adopted—and was accused shortly before his death in 2019 of child sex abuse at the former Holy Angels Catholic Church. He was eventually cleared, but the archdiocese settled in a different abuse case earlier this year also involving him.
Pfleger defended Clements from the earlier accusations, and lamented over the weekend that priests accused of abuse in the Chicago archdiocese are “presumed guilty until proven innocent.”
“While I am confident that the new allegation will also be determined to be unfounded, this process is so unfair and painful to me and the community I serve.”
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago released his own statement on Saturday, announcing the news to St. Sabina’s parishioners and saying that an investigation is underway with Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services and local law enforcement.
“The welfare of the children entrusted to our care remains our priority,” he wrote.
“The Archdiocese of Chicago takes all allegations of sexual misconduct seriously.”
As in 2021, St. Sabina’s associate pastor Thulani Magwaza will serve as administrator in Pfleger’s stead during the new abuse investigation.
Fr David Jones, the pastor of nearby St. Benedict the African Catholic Church in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, will serve at St. Sabina until November while Magwaza is away on a family visit.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).