By SOPHIA TAREEN, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) – An activist Catholic priest cleared by an Archdiocese of Chicago investigation into allegations he sexually abused boys decades ago returned to his longtime church pulpit on Sunday for the first time times in five months.
“It’s good to be home,” Reverend Michael Pfleger has repeatedly told members of the St Sabina faith community, describing his absence during the investigation as a “painful nightmare.”
Pfleger, 72, was put on leave in January amid allegations by two brothers who said Pfleger sexually assaulted them as children from the 1970s. A third man also later alleged that Pfleger’s had assaulted once in 1979 when he was 18 years old. Last month, the archdiocese concluded that there was “insufficient reason to suspect” that Pfleger had abused children. A police investigation remains open.
Her first service at the largely black church in South-South Chicago was as fiery as ever, with live music, dancing, and invigorated worshipers who fiercely supported their priest. Pfleger, who is white, thanked worshipers for supporting him and vowed to resume his activism, especially against gun violence, with even more enthusiasm.
“I’m going to fight harder, because I’m stronger, I’m better, and I’m wiser. … The last five months have been a roller coaster of pain, anger, depression and pain and not knowing what people think of you, ”he said, his voice cracking at times.
To support Pfleger, church members organized rallies, flooded the Archdiocese’s phone lines, threatened to withhold church dues, and launched a letter-writing campaign. On Sunday, some wore T-shirts with the priest’s photo and the message “Pfleger is back”. Among those in attendance was filmmaker Spike Lee, who is friends with Pfleger and whose 2015 film “Chi-raq” starred a Pfleger-inspired character played by John Cusack.
Pfleger is known for his anti-violence activism and for supporting neighborhood development in the largely underprivileged neighborhood surrounding the church. He has also been in the spotlight for clashing with religious leaders, having been suspended twice before this year, most notably in 2008 during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign when he mocked Obama’s main opponent. , Hillary Clinton.
Ordained in 1975 and posted to St. Sabina, Pfleger became pastor six years later and lived in the neighboring rectory until early this year, when he temporarily moved into an apartment during the investigation.
Police said their investigation remained “open and active,” but provided no details. Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx said police had not presented any information to his office to review or determine whether criminal charges were appropriate. Illinois does not have a statute of limitations for filing major sex crimes charges.
The Illinois Department of Child and Family Services completed its review in February, concluding that there was no credible evidence of child abuse or neglect. The agency, which does not investigate allegations of abuse by an adult victim, focused on whether the children were currently at risk.
During Sunday’s service, Pfleger spoke about street violence in Chicago. He also acknowledged the damage the abuse allegations have done to his reputation.
He did not discuss the allegations in detail, other than saying that the bogus accusations of “destroying his character” began with a “letter of extortion”. One of the brothers, who is in his sixties, admitted to asking Pfleger for a payment of $ 20,000 in December.
“I know my name will be damaged for the rest of my life,” Pfleger said as the worshipers hooted. “But most of it is by people who hated me anyway. There are people watching today who are not happy that I’m back. But take off your party hat and blow out the candles. I returned.”
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