CHICAGO (CBS) — The Rev. Michael Pfleger made his return to St. Sabina parish in Auburn Gresham on Sunday for the first time since he was reinstated and cleared of sexual abuse allegations by the Chicago Archdiocese.
As CBS 2’s Marissa Parra reported, parishioners and Father Pfleger himself likened the worship service Sunday morning to a homecoming.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: Storms Headed Our Way After Midnight; Damaging Winds And Heavy Rain Possible
There was high praise and energy as Pfleger returned to St. Sabina.
“My shirt says, ‘We stand with Father Pfleger,’” said Betty Harwell.
Michael Richards read a sign that he has carried to church every day for five months, reading, “We love you, Father Mike.”
The 72-year-old activist priest held his first worship service in five months Sunday.
“It’s good to be home St. Sabina,” Pfleger said. “It’s good to be home.”
For the first time, Pfleger addressed the accusations against him from the pulpit.
“The last five months have been a painful nightmare,” he said to a packed church Sunday. “They have been the most extended period of pain in my life…. My name is being assassinated across the news nationally and internationally.”
Pfleger described the moment he was told he had two hours to gather his things and inform the staff before the press would be notified.
Five months ago, Pfleger was moved out of church housing and removed from active ministry after two brothers accused him of molesting them in the 1970s. They shared their side of the story with CBS 2 in January.
The brothers who made the earlier accusations said they were each around 12 or 13 when the sexual abuse started 40 years ago. Both said Pfleger’s prominent standing in his community kept them speaking out until now.
A third man said he was 18 when an alleged incident with Pfleger occurred, but he said he came forward after hearing the brothers’ claims.
At the end of May, the Chicago Archdiocese completed their independent investigation and reinstated Pfleger, saying evidence against him was “insufficient.”
Eugene Hollander, the attorney for the brothers who accused Pfleger, expressed disappointment. He pointed out that both brothers passed a lie detector test.
“People believe what they want to believe, but my clients on their own were credible – credible – and taken together, the evidence was staggering,” he told CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov.READ MORE: Years After Promise Of $100,000 From State And Photo-Op Prop Check, AMVETS Post 14 In Clinton, Illinois Has Not Seen A Dime
In his return to the pulpit, Father Pfleger maintained his innocence. He said he was a victim of “false accusations that began with an extortion letter.”
From the start, the two brothers who made the claims against Pfleger were accused of lying for financial gain. They said their main motivation for coming forward is not money but telling the truth. But Pfleger’s attorneys pointed to a letter the younger brother sent Pfleger asking for $20,000. The younger brother said he thought he’d use payment as an admission of guilt.
Through his absence, parishioners – many of whom have known and followed Pfleger for decades – remained loyal.
“I felt a loss when he wasn’t here,” said Kathryn Looney.
“These accusations made against him are just not true,” added Harwell.
“It’s very emotional today,” said Richards, a 30-year parishioner.
“I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I just hate to see someone who has done so much good be persecuted,” said Joyce Maltbia, an 11-year parishioner.
Pfleger assured his supporters that his time with St. Sabina and activism for the Black community is not going anywhere.
“All I could say was, ‘I’m innocent.’ I couldn’t say anything about those accusations or individuals,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, I got back up and the fight is still on.”
“Whether you like it or not, I got back up and the fight is still on!!!”
— Marissa Parra (@MarParNews) June 6, 2021
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests has demanded more information on the investigation by the Archdiocese. A police investigation remains open.MORE NEWS: Some Residents Say A Bears Move To Arlington Heights Would Benefit Community, Others Say It Would Bring Unwelcome Traffic And Crowds
Father Pfleger said he would continue to pray for his accusers.