Brothers accuse prominent Chicago priest of sexual abuse

Two brothers in their 60s have described what they say was years of sexual abuse by an firebrand priest who gained fame speaking out on national politics and for taking on drug dealers in poor South Side neighborhoods around his Chicago church

Two brothers in their 60s on Monday described years of sexual abuse by a firebrand activist priest who has gained fame speaking out on national politics from the pulpit and for taking on drug dealers in South Side neighborhoods around his Chicago church.

The abuse began in the 1970s as Father Michael Pfleger offered the then-teenagers haven from gang violence and family problems, with the abuse often occurring in Pfleger’s private rooms at Chicago-area rectories, the brothers said in written statements and comments at a Monday news conference.

“We were poor black kids, small for our age growing up in a very violent neighborhood... Mike targeted us because he knew we were vulnerable,” the older brother a 63-year-old former police officer, said in the statement. The other brother is 61.

A Sunday statement from Pfleger's private attorneys said the allegations were false.

“Father Pfleger has never abused them or anybody else,” it said.

At the news conference, the 63-year-old brother said the abuse began when he was around 13, and lasted for four or five years. When it started, he told reporters, he was “confused” by what was happening.

“But… as a child, getting that attention — good or bad — was still better than being out on the street,” he said. “Because I was scared to death in the street.”

The men did not identify themselves at the news conference, and their lawyers also have not publicly identified them. Letters on their behalf sent to the archdiocese detailing the allegations in recent weeks had the accusers’ names redacted.

Pfleger, now 70, groomed the teens by, among other things, taking them roller skating, to amusement parks and teaching them how to drive, the brothers and their lawyer said.

Neither brother knew the other had also been abused by Pfleger until a few weeks ago. The older brother said the revelation about his younger sibling, who had struggled with drug abuse and spent time behind bars, “almost put me in a paralyzed state.”

“It’s like going back into that child’s mind and realizing that (the interaction with Pfleger) was a fraud from the start,” he said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago said earlier this month that it had received an allegation against Pfleger and asked him to step aside as it looked into the matter.

Pfleger has been immensely popular in his Chicago parish and helped it thrive over the past quarter-century as many other congregations have struggled.

But his sometimes pointed rhetoric has landed him in trouble.

Pfleger, who is white, made headlines in 2008 during Barack Obama’s campaign for president by making racially charged comments mocking Obama’s primary opponent Hillary Clinton. Obama decried the remarks as “divisive” and “backward-looking,” and Pflager issued an apology.

After the archdiocese announcement, Pfleger responded by asking for prayers for himself and the person making the accusation. At the time, the archdiocese offered no details, including the possibility of more than one accuser.

“I am devastated, hurt and, yes, angry, but I am first, a person of Faith, I Trust God. Please keep me in prayer,” Pfleger said in a message posted on Facebook. He added that “my life is more than a 40 year old accusation, and on that and my Faith I will stand.”

In his Facebook post, Pfleger said that the archdiocese has asked him not to speak publicly about the allegation.

Sunday's statement from Pfleger’s lawyers said the younger brother wrote a letter to Pfleger last month asking the priest for $20,000.

“This is a shakedown,” the statement said.

Monday's statement from the younger brother's lawyer said he had asked for $20,000 from Pfleger in a letter, in which he confronted the priest about abuse. The younger brother said the request wasn’t an extortion attempt. He said he'd hope that, if Pfleger paid him, it would help prove the accusations were true when he went public.

“This is not about money,” the younger brother said in a statement. “If it was, I would have come forward 20 years ago when I was addicted to drugs, homeless and stealing to support my habit." He added: “Mike has done some good things but he has a very dark side. … What I want is for him to take responsibility … be accountable.”

Early this month, Cardinal Blase Cupich sent a letter to members of the South Side church Faith Community of Saint Sabina, which is pastored by Pfleger, noting the allegation hasn’t been proven as true or false and guilt or innocence should not be assumed. Cupich’s letter said Pfleger had agreed to live elsewhere.

Pfleger was ordained in 1975 and was assigned to St. Sabina Church that same year. Six years later, according to a biography on the church’s website, he became pastor — the youngest full-time pastor in the archdiocese at the time.

Pfleger’s high-profile social activism has included organizing protests and acts of civil disobedience such as smearing red paint on alcohol and tobacco billboards. He once was arrested during protest of a suburban gun shop, which he said was partly responsible for gun violence in Chicago.

His activism captured the attention of film director Spike Lee, who based the character played by actor John Cusack in the 2015 film “Chi-Raq” on Pfleger. He also made headlines when he adopted two children — one of whom was shot to death near the parish — and has clashed with Cupich and his predecessors for such acts as hosting Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan at his church.

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