Chicago parish to withhold $100k: The sum, and the canonical issues, explained

A Pillar Explainer

A Chicago parish made headlines this weekend, saying it planned to withhold $100,000 dollars per month from the archdiocese until a canonical investigation is concluded into the parish’s suspended pastor, Fr. Michael Pfleger. A parish spokesperson explained the sum, and the parish’s decision, which also raises questions about who exactly is leading the parish during Pfleger’s absence. 

The money

A statement, issued Sunday by the “cabinet” at St. Sabina Parish in Chicago, drew attention for the large sum the parish school said it would keep back - adding up to more than $1 million annually.  

A spokesperson for the parish of St. Sabina clarified to The Pillar that the Archdiocese of Chicago levies an income assessment on the parish of 10%, amounting to some $13,000 per month. 

But the parish sends more than $100,000 monthly to the archdiocese because of other financial obligations to the archdiocese and administered through it, including property and liability insurance payments, the spokesperson said. All such payments are being withheld until the resolution of Pfleger’s case, the spokesperson said.

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A statement released Sunday by the parish, located on Chicago’s South Side, said withholding the money is “the next strategic move to keep the pressure on the Archdiocese to expedite the alleged abuse investigation” into Pfleger. 

“The Cabinet and Leadership of the Faith Community of St. Sabina has made the decision to withhold our monthly assessments, of the church and school, to the Archdiocese starting in March. These assessments total approximately $100,000 per month.”

The Pillar has not reviewed parish financial records to verify the amount.

Diocesan bishops are permitted in canon law to impose a tax on the revenue of Catholic institutions to support the wider needs of the diocese, provided that the assessment is “proportionate” to the income of the legal entity being taxed. 

The parish spokesperson told The Pillar that parishes in the archdiocese regularly fail to make monthly payments to the chancery because of income shortages. Those arrears are often converted to loans by the archdiocese at the end of the financial year, she added.

Parishes accumulating too much debt to the archdiocese can be targeted for closure, the spokesperson alleged. 

“The cabinet”

While members of the parish have mounted a vigorous defense of Pfleger in public, and been vocally critical of the archdiocese, the announcement Sunday elevates the conflict to a canonical level. It also raises questions about who is leading the parish in Pfleger’s absence.

At the time Pfleger was removed from ministry, Jan. 5, Cardinal Cupich appointed Fr. Thulani Magwaza as administrator of the parish. Fr. Magwaza has served in the parish since 2009, arriving as an “associate pastor,” and later becoming “pastor” under Pfleger’s leadership as “senior pastor of the parish.”

It is not clear what line of authority those terms actually convey. Ordinarily, a pastor is the administrator of a parish, and “senior pastor” is an honorific used to describe a retired priest. But Cupich appointed Magwaza to administer the parish after Pfleger was removed, suggesting that administrative authority had until then been vested in Pfleger.

But the Sunday announcement on funds was made by the “parish cabinet” of St. Sabina, seemingly its parish council. Previous announcements from the parish have also been made by the “cabinet.”

The listed leader of the “parish cabinet” is Fr. Magwaza, as the administrator of the parish appointed by the cardinal. A spokesperson for the parish confirmed to The Pillar that Fr. Magwaza “has been involved in every decision that is made” regarding the parish’s response to the archdiocese over Pfleger’s case, and that he was involved directly in the announcement to withhold funds from the archdiocese.

The archdiocese has not yet responded to the parish announcement. Nor has it made clear how it understands the situation canonically.

A group of lay people in the parish issuing statements in opposition to the governance of the bishop would likely be seen as a pastoral problem for the archdiocese. But a priest of the diocese issuing a formal decision to withhold the diocesan assessment as retaliation against an act of governance by the local bishop is a potentially serious canonical issue.

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The backstory

Withholding funds marks an escalation in a standoff between the parish and chancery authorities that began shortly after Cardinal Blase Cupich announced that he had asked Fr. Pfleger to “step aside” from ministry in January, following an accusation of sexual abuse dating back decades. 

Pfleger is a well known priest of the archdiocese, famous for his social justice activism and deep connection to the local community. News of the accusation against the priest was greeted with skepticism by his parishioners, who have demanded that the archdiocese close its canonical investigation and return him to ministry.

Since the decision to remove Pfleger, a second accusation against the priest has been made, by the original accuser’s brother. Pfleger has denied all accusations and his lawyers have released messages from one of the brothers appearing to demand money in exchange for not making the accusations public.

St. Sabina’s announcement to withhold payments came after new developments in the case last week, when a letter to Pfleger from the state Division for Child and Family Services was reported. The letter referenced a Jan. 4 complaint against Pfleger and said that after a “thorough evaluation” the agency had “determined the report to be ‘unfounded.’”

Although some supporters of Pfleger claimed the letter exonerated the priest, a DCFS spokesman clarified on Friday that the DCFS investigation’s scope was limited to danger for children in the present: “The law does not permit DCFS to investigate allegations of child abuse or neglect made by an adult victim [as is the case for Pfleger]. DCFS can only determine whether there is a current child victim.” 

The archdiocese has repeatedly stated that a canonical investigation into the accusations against Pfleger is proceeding according to established diocesan policy, and will continue.

The Pillar asked the Archdiocese of Chicago to comment on the situation of the parish, and specifically on the announcement by the parish council with Fr. Magwaza’s involvement. No response was received.