CHICAGO (AP) — 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 when Father Michael Pfleger was a seminarian at a West Side church and they were in their early teens singing in the church choir, the brothers said in written statements and during comments at a Monday news conference.
Pfleger, they said, offered them haven from gang violence and family strife, then abused them in Pfleger’s private rooms at Chicago-area rectories dozens of times, including at the Faith Community of Saint Sabina Pfleger has pastored for decades.
“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 said in a statement that also noted he was a 63-year-old former Texas police officer.
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, who served more than 20 years in the Air Force before becoming a police officer, 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."
“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 younger brother said his struggles to cope with the abuse threw his life off track, contributing to years of drug use and to his imprisonment for non-violent offences.
“It destroyed my life,” he said.
The men did not identify themselves at the news conference, and their lawyers also have not publicly identified them. Recent letters sent on their behalf to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago detailing the allegations 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 early this month, after the younger brother submitted his allegations to the archdiocese. The older brother, submitted his more recently.
The archdiocese said earlier this month 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. On Monday, over 50 people gathered outside the Saint Sabina church to express support for Pfleger. Some wore T-shirts reading, “We stand with Father Pfleger.”
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 Pfleger issued an apology.
After the archdiocese's January 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 wrote in a message posted on Facebook. He added, “my life is more than a 40 year old accusation, and on that and my Faith I will stand.”
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.
The younger brother confirmed he asked Pfleger for money in a December letter, in which he confronted the priest about abuse but insisted it wasn't an extortion attempt. He'd hoped that, if Pfleger paid him, it'd help prove the accusations were true when he went public, he said.
“This is not about money,” he said in the 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.”
The older brother said he knew nothing about his brother's letter or its contents. He described their relationship as distant, describing how he once even arrested his younger brother — an arrest that eventually put his sibling behind bars for years.
He criticized the Pfleger lawyers' statement for its across-the-board denials when the lawyers couldn't know all the facts.
“I can tell you that what infuriates me is a lawyer saying anything about me and not knowing what happened,” he said “I was there. Mike (Pfleger) was there. We were the only two in the room.”
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, he became pastor — the youngest full-time pastor in the archdiocese at the time.
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.