Father Michael Pfleger
Michael Louis Pfleger
May 22, 1949
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Alma mater||Loyola University Chicago, Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake.|
|Occupation||Priest, social activist|
A German American from the South Side of Chicago, Pfleger attended Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary South, Loyola University and the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He was ordained a priest for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago on May 14, 1975.
Since 1981, he has been pastor of the mostly African American parish of Saint Sabina, a Catholic church in Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood. His uninterrupted tenure in just one parish is normally unheard of in a diocese where pastors usually serve for only six to twelve years. When he was appointed to his present position, at age 31, he became the youngest pastor in the Chicago archdiocese. Under his leadership, Saint Sabina has established an Employment Resource Center, a Social Service Center and also an Elders home.
Pfleger's social activism has brought him media coverage throughout Chicago and beyond. He has often collaborated and associated with African American religious, political and social activists such as Jeremiah Wright, Joseph Lowery, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Cornel West and Louis Farrakhan.
Under Pfleger's leadership, the community of St. Sabina demanded the shutdown of a number of Auburn Gresham businesses specializing in drug paraphernalia. His parish also campaigned for the removal of tobacco and alcohol billboards from their neighborhood. When billboard owners refused to cooperate in the early 1990s, he and others decided to climb ladders and deface the signs. He was charged with destruction of private property, but was acquitted by a jury in 1991.
In September 1997, the Chicago City Council voted 44–1 to eliminate tobacco and alcohol billboards from selected areas in Chicago. Pfleger described the decision as "a tremendous victory for the children of Chicago, for our neighborhoods, especially black and Hispanic neighborhoods."
Jerry Springer and Howard Stern
Pfleger has become one of the best known critics of The Jerry Springer Show, a controversial television program which was videotaped in Chicago. Believing the program to be immoral, he and his parishioners began picketing outside the show's studios in 1991. By 1998, he had organized a boycott of the show's advertisers. "[Springer is] glorifying violence every day.... Calling a woman a ho and a bitch is sick. This is not normal behavior", he declared. The show's producers eventually claimed that they would attempt to decrease the number of on-stage fights on the program.
Pfleger later targeted radio personality Howard Stern in response to Stern's late 2005 advertising campaign to promote his move to satellite radio. Pfleger specifically objected to a pair of Stern's billboards in Chicago that featured an image of the black power salute with the caption "Let freedom ring. And let it be rung by a stripper", a parody of a line in Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Pfleger told the media, "As we prepare to celebrate Dr. King's birthday, we will not tolerate this kind of disrespect. We should not have to tolerate it in our communities." Viacom, the owner of the billboards, eventually removed the signs due to the protests. Pfleger received criticism from Stern's fans, who questioned Pfleger's commitment to freedom of speech. Jesse Jackson came to Pfleger's defense, saying, "There are two freedoms at issue here. They have the right to advertise, and we have the right to resist it in our community. Sometimes freedom is challenged by a community's tolerance level. I think Father Pfleger is a man of great dignity and has an acute social conscience. And he deserves our support."
Outreach to prostitutes
The Chicago Archdiocese largely distanced itself from Pfleger's activities, to which he responded, "How is what I'm doing not part of the gospel? The church leaders talk about evangelization. Well, if this isn't evangelization, I don't know what is." Saint Sabina raised several thousand dollars for his program, attracting many donors from outside their parish. St. Sabina has used similar methods to reach out to drug dealers.
Southside Catholic Conference controversy
In 2001, Pfleger fired racism accusations towards a mostly-white primary school athletic league, the Southside Catholic Conference, after they refused to admit Saint Sabina's parish school. The league claimed that visiting teams and parents would be unsafe in Saint Sabina's neighborhood. He responded, "Racism continues to be alive and well both inside society and inside the church. To be denied admission on the sole premise that certain coaches and parishes feared for the safety of their children is illegitimate, ridiculous, and insulting. It is very troubling that the conference would insinuate that we would place their children in harm's way." Chicago's Cardinal Francis George eventually pressured the league to reverse its decision.
Billboards against disrespectful rappers
In 2007, Pfleger and his Saint Sabina parishioners erected twenty billboards across Chicago with the words "Stop Listening To Trash", followed by a list of "disrespectful rappers", which included Fat Joe, Lil Wayne, Nelly, 50 Cent, G-Unit, Twista, Snoop Dogg and Ludacris. Pfleger said in a press release, "If we are going to end the violence and disrespect of women, we must fight every form of negativity, including the music industry." He explained to WMAQ-TV's Alex Perez, "When you disrespect women and you continue to demean a community or race by names and by language, that's unacceptable. ... We can kill with our words."
Pfleger and Jeremiah Wright
On March 28, 2008, Pfleger invited Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, to deliver a blessing at Saint Sabina during a visit by poet Maya Angelou. Wright had been criticized by President Obama, academics and political pundits on the left and right for several controversial sermons, but Pfleger came to Wright's defense. "I wanted him to come here so he could see that people really stand with him and support him while he's under all this attack. America, unfortunately, has been really cheated of knowing the real Dr. Wright," said Pfleger.
In a statement on Saint Sabina's website, Pfleger wrote, "Dr. Wright is one of the great biblical scholars of our country and the best of preachers in the prophetic tradition. Dr. Wright has been shamefully demonized by 30 second sound bites that have tried to re-define him into someone other than who he is."
In February 2003, Pfleger generated controversy by inviting Al Sharpton to speak at a mass during Black History Month celebrations. Cardinal Francis George disapproved of Sharpton's appearance, due to Sharpton's pro-choice stance on abortion. Since Sharpton was a presidential candidate at the time, archdiocese officials were concerned that having a political candidate speak in church would cause them to lose their tax exemption. However, George decided that trying to stop Sharpton from coming "would be a futile gesture and a waste of effort".
Of his disagreements with George, Pfleger once said, "I can only assume the Cardinal sees my style of ministry to be something he doesn't agree with. In that sense, he sees me as a thorn. That's what I'm left to feel like. I don't revel in that. In fact, it's very difficult. It's a very difficult feeling [being] on the fringe, getting public reprimands, public criticisms. I don't enjoy that at all. [But] my focus right now is to try to continue building up the Church. A lot of what we do is [considered] out of the ordinary. That kind of puzzles me. It's not the Church I grew up in. The Church then was very involved in justice and civil rights issues."
Gun control advocacy
Chuck's Gun Shop campaign
In 2007, Pfleger and Jesse Jackson led a campaign protesting against Chuck's Gun Shop & Range. According to the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, Chuck's Gun Shop & Range had sold over 2,000 weapons that were traced to crimes committed between 1996 and 2004. During one protest, Pfleger and Jackson were arrested by Riverdale police for blocking the entrance to the store. Both were later released without charge.
In May 2007, during a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition protest outside Chuck's Gun Shop & Range, Pfleger was accused of threatening the life of the owner, John Riggio. The Illinois State Rifle Association released a tape where Pfleger was heard telling the assembled crowd, "He's the owner of Chuck's. John Riggio. R-i-g-g-i-o. We're going to find you and snuff you out… You know you're going to hide like a rat. You're going to hide but like a rat we're going to catch you and pull you out." Pfleger later claimed his use of the phrase "snuff you out" had been misinterpreted.
Cardinal George rebuked Pfleger, saying, "Publicly delivering a threat against anyone's life betrays the civil order and is morally outrageous, especially if this threat came from a priest." Pfleger claimed that he did not intend to use the word "snuff" as a slang term for "kill", but rather as a substitute for "pull", as he used later in his statement.
Pfleger always travels with armed bodyguards when participating in protests. In 2014 Father Pfleger was criticized for attending an anti-gun rally while being protected by 3 or more armed bodyguards. On May 27, 2018 a member of his security detail was arrested outside St. Sabina when officers noticed him brandishing a pistol. Upon investigation, the officers discovered that the bodyguard, Eugene Hale, did not possess a Concealed Carry License and was not legally licensed to carry a weapon in public or even own a weapon due to not possessing a Firearm Owner Identification Card (FOID)
Controversy during 2008 presidential election
On May 25, 2008, Pfleger gave a sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ, then Presidential candidate Barack Obama's church, where he made controversial statements concerning Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama's opponent for the Democratic Party nomination.
Pfleger said, "I really believe that she just always thought, 'This is mine. I'm Bill's wife. I'm white, and this is mine. I just gotta get up and step into the plate.' Then out of nowhere came, 'Hey, I'm Barack Obama,' and she said, 'Oh, damn! Where did you come from? I'm white! I'm entitled! There's a black man stealing my show!'" He then pretended to wipe tears from his face, a reference to Clinton's emotional speech before the New Hampshire primary, and added, "She wasn't the only one crying. There was a whole lot of white people crying."
After hearing about Pfleger's remarks, Obama said he was "deeply disappointed in Pfleger's divisive, backward-looking rhetoric". Pfleger later released a statement through St. Sabina that read, "I regret the words I chose Sunday. These words are inconsistent with Sen. Obama's life and message, and I am deeply sorry if they offended Sen. Clinton or anyone else who saw them."
On May 31, 2008, Obama resigned his membership in Trinity Church, saying that his campaign had caused the church to receive excessive media attention. On June 1, 2008, Pfleger released a longer apology to the St. Sabina parish regarding the incident and its aftermath.
On June 3, 2008, Cardinal George asked Pfleger to take a disciplinary leave of absence from St. Sabina. George said in a statement, "I have asked Father Michael Pfleger, Pastor of St. Sabina's Parish, to step back from his obligations there and take leave for a couple of weeks from his pastoral duties, effective today. Fr. Pfleger does not believe this to be the right step at this time. While respecting his disagreement, I have nevertheless asked him to use this opportunity to reflect on his recent statements and actions in the light of the Church's regulations for all Catholic priests. I hope that this period will also be a time away from the public spotlight and for rest and attention to family concerns." Pfleger resumed his parish duties on June 16, 2008.
On April 27, 2011, the homepage of the website of the Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement from Francis Cardinal George in the form of a letter, temporarily suspending Pfleger from administering any of the sacraments (save for the administration of the Sacrament of Penance in an emergency, which even laicized or excommunicated priests may do) and from his active ministry as pastor of St. Sabina's Parish.
Cardinal George had suggested Pfleger take the position of president at Chicago's Leo Catholic High School, but Pfleger said he would consider leaving the Catholic Church if forced to leave his parish. Cardinal George replied, in part, "If that is truly your attitude, you have already left the Catholic Church." Cardinal George lifted the suspension on May 20, 2011.
In May 2019, Pfleger invited Farrakhan, the leader of the notably antisemitic Nation of Islam to speak at Saint Sabina—a controversial act in an of itself, made even more newsworthy by Farrakhan's disparaging comments about Jews during the address. The event was reportedly in response to Farrakhan's being banned from Facebook.
Child sexual abuse allegation
On January 5, 2021, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that Pfleger was removed from active ministry due to an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor, occurring over 40 years earlier. By January 25, another alleged victim had come forward, the brother of the first.
On March 3, 2021, a third person alleged that Pfleger provided him with alcohol and marijuana before sexually assaulting him. Unlike the other accusers, the victim was an 18-year-old man.
On May 24, 2021, following an investigation, the Archdiocese of Chicago said Pfleger would be reinstated as pastor. Cardinal Cupich wrote: "The review board has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations."
In 1981, Pfleger adopted an eight-year-old son, Lamar, in defiance of Cardinal John Patrick Cody, who had threatened to fire him if he went ahead with the adoption. Lamar graduated from college and got a job with Continental Airlines, which he lost after the September 11 attacks. He subsequently enlisted in the United States Army. In 1992, Pfleger adopted another son, Beronti, who attended the University of Central Florida before his sudden death on May 20, 2012. Pfleger says his son had been coping with an illness the past few years. In 1997, Pfleger became the foster father to Jarvis Franklin, who was killed by stray gunfire on May 30, 1998.
In popular media
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- "Religion & Ethics: Black Catholics". PBS. Retrieved July 8, 2007.
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- Golab, Art (July 25, 2001). "Pfleger draws key support 13 black leaders back priest". High Beam Research. Chicago Sun Times. Archived from the original on February 20, 2016. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
- Robert McClory. "Blacks and Catholics are joint ventures at Chicago parish – St. Sabina Church led by a priest, Michael Pfleger." National Catholic Reporter. March 13, 1998; retrieved July 8, 2007.
- Fran Spielman. "Billboard blitz in Chicago." Chicago-Sun Times. September 11, 1997.
- Lindsey Tanner. "Springer battle just one fought by charismatic minister", The Journal Record, May 7, 1998; retrieved July 8, 2007.
- Ernest Tucker. "Church outreach creates buzz." Chicago Sun-Times. March 30, 2000; retrieved July 8, 2007.
- Dirk Johnson. "A Priest Pays Prostitutes for Time, Offers Them an Escape", The New York Times, April 12, 2000. pg. A18
- Robert McClory. "Black parish school shut out of league", National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001; retrieved July 8, 2007.
- Falsani, Cathleen (November 28, 2001). "St. Sabina ready to play first conference game". Highbeam Research. Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on February 20, 2016. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
- "Church's Billboards Target 'Degrading' Rappers". NBC-5 News. June 19, 2007. Retrieved on April 2, 2008.
- Rev. Jeremiah Wright delivers blessing at Chicago Catholic church. Catholic News Agency. March 31, 2008; retrieved April 2, 2008.
- Statement by Rev. Michael L. Pfleger on Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright's Visit to the Church on March 28, 2008; retrieved April 2, 2008.
- Cathleen Falsani. "Sharpton's St. Sabina Visit Upsets Cardinal", Chicago Sun-Times, February 8, 2003.
- Ron Csillag. "Chicago's renegade priest – Father Michael Pfleger tackles booze, drugs and violence in an effort to clean up the South Side". Toronto Star, November 8, 2003. pg. L16.
- Lindsay Kishter. "Protest again takes aim at Riverdale gun shop", Chicago Tribune, June 30, 2007.
- Susan Hogan. "Cardinal rebukes Pfleger for 'threat'", Chicago Sun-Times, June 8, 2007.
- "RANK HYPOCRISY: Father Pfleger comes to gun control rally with armed bodyguards". www.gunssavelife.com.
- Armed member of 'Pfleger's security' arrested outside his church.
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- Apology to church family Archived 2008-06-02 at the Wayback Machine; retrieved June 2, 2008.
- "Cardinal Tells Priest Who Mocked Clinton to Take a Leave and 'Reflect'", The New York Times, June 4, 2008; retrieved June 4, 2008.
- Margaret Ramirez. "Rev. Michael Pfleger returns to St. Sabina", Chicago Tribune, June 16, 2008.
- Letter from Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, to Father Pfleger Archived 2011-09-28 at the Wayback Machine, archchicago.org, April 27, 2011.
- Cardinal restores Pfleger to St. Sabina, chicagotribune.com; accessed December 3, 2017.
- Guidos, Rhina (2019-05-13). "Cardinal Cupich apologizes for Farrakhan visit to Chicago Catholic Church". America Magazine. Catholic News Service. Retrieved 2021-01-06.
- Issa, Nader (2019-05-10). "Cupich apologizes to 'my Jewish brothers and sisters' after Farrakhan speech". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2021-01-06.
- "Father Michael Pfleger Faces Allegation Of Sexual Abuse Of Minor From More Than 40 Years Ago". 2021-01-05. Retrieved 2021-01-06.
- "Third man accuses Pfleger of sexual abuse". 2021-03-02. Retrieved 2021-03-03.
- Gutowski, Christy (2021-05-24). "Cardinal reinstates Pfleger after probe finds 'insufficient reason to suspect' he's guilty of child sex abuse allegations. 'Let's get back to work,' St. Sabina pastor says". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
- Cathleen Falsani. "What's a peacenik to do when son joins Army?" Chicago-Sun Times. December 24, 2004.
- Rev. Michael L. Pfleger. "The Faith Community of Saint Sabina".
- ""Voice of Change", chicagomag.com (January 2010).
- Roger Ebert. "Review: Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger", rogerebert.com, August 26, 2009; retrieved November 15, 2009.
- Osnos, Evan (February 29, 2016). "Father Mike : a militant white priest fights for his black parishioners on the South Side". Letter from Chicago. The New Yorker. 92 (3): 36–45.
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