CHICAGO (CBS) — Cardinal Francis George on Friday defended his decision to suspend St. Sabina Pastor Michael Pfleger, saying the maverick priest needs to consider the public comments he has made about separating from the Catholic Church if he is not allowed to stay at his South Side parish.

Pfleger said earlier this month he may start his own church if the Archdiocese moved forward with plans to transfer him to Leo High School. That brought this week’s rebuke from George, who suspended Pfleger in a letter and directed him to do some soul-searching about his identity as a priest.

“The move is not a question right now,” George told CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez at O’Hare Airport, as the Cardinal was leaving for Rome. “The question is his own identity as a Catholic priest. The move, that’s all moot. The question is far deeper than that. It’s a question of faith and the discipline of the priesthood. So, we’ll have to have a conversation.”

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George publicly released the letter, which also took Pfleger to task for the negative way he has portrayed the church — as trying to “remove” him from St. Sabina, which has a largely African-American congregation. The Cardinal says Pfleger privately had been open-minded about the possibility of assuming new duties.

“The letter was written respectfully so he would have something to think about, because the ball really is in his corner now,” George told Tellez. “And I wrote the letter because of his own comments.”

George also addressed criticisms from St. Sabina parishioners who have questioned the Cardinal’s actions. George said it is his job to deal with crises involving priests.

“I would hope (parishioners) would understand the necessity to ask the question about faith and life,” George said. “If I’m not responsible for priests, then why do you come to me when a priest has abused a child or when a priest has stolen some money? … You can’t have it both ways, can you? You can’t say I’m responsible for Catholic priests and then say, ‘Not in this case.’ ”

The Cardinal said he hopes parishioners do not leave St. Sabina.

Asked whether there is room for negotiations for Pfleger to stay in his current assignment, George responded:  “He’s still pastor of St. Sabina’s. I hope that we can clarify things and that his very effective ministry will be able to continue as a Catholic priest.”

For Pfleger’s part, he was keeping a low profile and declining to speak to local media.

“I choose not to (comment) right now. I’m in prayer,” Pfleger told CBS 2’s Kristyn Hartman as he left Friday evening. “We’re going to feed the homeless — that’s what it’s about.”

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George was headed to Vatican City for beatification ceremonies honoring the late Pope John Paul II this weekend.

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