Content warning: Sexual assault
Sergio Dixon was scrolling Facebook when he first saw the allegations that Rev. Michael Pfleger, the head of St. Sabina Church, with whom he had volunteered for more than ten years, had sexually assaulted two minors decades ago. The thirty-three-year-old father of two has lived his whole life in and around Auburn Gresham, where St. Sabina is located. Though not a member of the church, Dixon regularly attends community events where he has seen Pfleger protest for the rights of Black residents like himself and bring people from homeless shelters to the church not only to feed them, but also to make sure that they would have holiday gifts for their children. Dixon was devastated that their work for the community might have to be put on pause.
“People in our community look at Father Pfleger as a light of hope,” Dixon said. “In a time when there’s so much killing and people are suffering from the economic crisis due to the pandemic, who can afford to go through this type of season without some type of hope?”
Pfleger, a white priest serving a predominantly Black congregation, has been an outspoken advocate for Chicago’s Black communities. His longtime activism has earned him national recognition––with former President Barack Obama calling his work “heroic”––and strong support from many community members since the sexual assault allegations surfaced at the beginning of this year.
In January, Pfleger stepped away from his ministry at St. Sabina when two brothers, now in their sixties, accused him of repeatedly molesting them when they were minors. In March, a third man, now fifty-nine, came forward and said that Pfleger made an unwanted sexual advance on him when he was eighteen. The pastor denied the allegations in a letter to his partitioners, but the investigation by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Independent Review Board, which began in January, is still ongoing. More than four months after the initial accusations, with little information from the archdiocese, some community members are getting impatient.
“There’re not many people in his stead here in Chicago that can do what Father Pfleger can,” Dixon said. “So of course people are upset, of course they are saying, bring our hope back, bring our help back.”
Pfleger’s relationship with Auburn Gresham started in the 1970s, when, inspired by the work of Martin Luther King Jr., he decided to pursue a career as a Catholic priest at St. Sabina, according to a biography of Pfleger by journalist Robert McClory. After becoming the youngest pastor in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1981, he began to respond to the many challenges facing Black neighborhoods in an unapologetic and often provocative way. He has also worked closely in other South and West Side neighborhoods to combat gun violence, unemployment, disinvestment, and other persistent challenges.
Over the years, Pfleger was arrested dozens of times for civil disobedience while campaigning against the sales of guns, cigarettes, alcohol, and drug paraphernalia in local stores. In 2000, he drew more controversy by buying time from sex workers in order to offer them counseling and job training, which the archdiocese considered “out of the norm.” In 2003, he invited pro-choice civil rights activist Al Sharpton to St. Sabina’s Black History Month celebrations, over the objections of Cardinal Francis George, who was then the Archbishop of Chicago.
While Pfleger’s unconventional approach offended many conservative Catholics as well as church leaders, as McClory noted, it also helped him win the trust of residents. Despite the gravity of Pfleger’s alleged misconduct, supporters have not shied away from expressing their loyalty to Pleger. Soon after the initial accusation, more than fifty community members rallied outside the church to defend their beloved pastor, wearing shirts that read “We stand with Father Pfleger” and demanding his return to the parish.
Eric Russell, who has known Pfleger for three decades, was among the first to voice his support. He said his faith in Pfleger came from the pastor’s consistent efforts to advocate for Chicago’s Black residents. The two have collaborated on various campaigns on issues ranging from drug abuse to police brutality.
In the 1980s, Russell recalled, when the AIDS epidemic and the influx of crack cocaine ravaged the city’s Black neighborhoods, Pfleger was one of the few priests who stood up for both causes and fought the battles alongside Black activists like himself. In 2016, amid the growing national outcry over police brutality, Russell started a group called Tree of Life Justice League to advocate for police accountability in Chicago and beyond. He grew to respect Pfleger even more when the pastor openly called out members of law enforcement for racist behavior, Russell said, and risked damaging St. Sabina’s relationship with city officials.
“He strained some of his relationships by standing with me … when a lot of preachers that look like me and look like the people that are being oppressed didn’t stand up,” Russell said. Calling Pfleger his “blue-eyed soul brother,” Russell said the work of the priest “put some of the African-American preachers to shame.”
Though not a member of St. Sabina, Russell plans to have his two-year-old granddaughter baptized by Pfleger in the summer. “If I thought he was a sexual predator or a pedophile, surely I would not be sending my grandbaby into his care to be a part of his community,” he said.
Natasha Green, a resident of Englewood for two decades, sent her son to St. Sabina Academy, the church’s educational outreach ministry, from the age of five to thirteen. Having witnessed firsthand how young Black boys were being killed on the street in her neighborhood, Green said Pfleger provided much-needed guidance for those like her son, who is graduating from high school this year.
“You’re in a community that financially is impoverished and you have no guidance because a lot of the fathers are incarcerated and the single parents are trying to work and trying to maintain a home,” Green said. “Father Pfleger was definitely a role model.”
But not everyone is ready to rally behind the priest. Some remain critical of the type of unconditional support that the community has shown Pfleger, especially in the face of long-standing sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests and the pattern of cover-ups in dioceses across the country.
Elizabeth Marino, a sixty-five-year-old Chicagoan who was born and raised a Catholic, distanced herself from the church a long time ago due exactly to authorities’ mishandling of widespread sexual assault cases. Familiar with Pfleger’s work, Marino is inclined to believe in the pastor’s innocence, but she does not want to discount the claims of the alleged victims, especially since the brothers recently passed their polygraph exams.
“Unfortunately, there is a history of huge amounts of diocese-level resources used to hide the bad actions of priests, and silence believers coming forward,” Marino said. “It is a history that pushed many Catholics out, and keeps them away.”
The accusers and their attorney have emphasized that Pfleger’s contributions to local communities has nothing to do with the validity of the allegations. In a March affidavit, one of the brothers said that “Mike, the very flawed person” is separate from “Father Pfleger, a priest who has also done good.”
“There’s no question that Father Pfleger has done some really good work, but one allegation of sexual abuse is one too many,” said Eugene Hollander, the brothers’ attorney. The protests organized by Pfleger’s supporters and the “victim trashing” that took place in recent months, according to Hollander, have impacted his clients and will make it difficult for other potential victims to come forward.
In April, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, accused St. Sabina of employing “inappropriate and intimidating tactics,” like flooding the archdiocese’s phone line in order to put pressure on the investigators in support of Pfleger. In a letter to Rev. Thulani Magwaza, who is officiating at St. Sabina in Pfleger’s absence, Cupich threatened to move the case to another diocese and start the process all over again if the parish continued its current practices. On St. Sabina’s website, which has continued to publish written statements from Pfleger during the investigation, the church is encouraging supporters to write directly to the Independent Review Board instead of calling.
Supporters like Dixon are optimistic that Pfleger will bounce back from the allegations and resume his work for the community.
“If he was found guilty, he should be prosecuted,” Dixon said. “But he’s already done his work in a way where you cannot take it away from him. He’s stood up for the community. He’s fought. He’s spoken up. People will follow him.”
Yilun Cheng is a freelance journalist who reports on housing, immigration, race relations, and other social justice issues in and outside Chicago. She is currently working toward her MSJ degree at the Medill School of Journalism. She last wrote for the Weekly about displacement in Chinatown.