Cupich issues final warning over ‘tactics of intimidation’ by Pfleger parish

News: Archdiocese of Chicago

Cardinal Blase Cupich has said he will turn over the investigation of a popular local priest accused of sexual abuse to another diocese if efforts to “intimidate” members of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Independent Review Board do not come to an end. 

“Once again this week, there was an organized effort through the St. Sabina website to employ inappropriate and intimidating tactics to put pressure on the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Independent Review Board (IRB) as the case of Father Michael Pfleger Is being processed,” Cupich wrote in an April 13 letter to the parish administrator of Chicago’s St. Sabina Parish.

“Tactics of intimidation that put pressure on individuals seeking only to provide justice and pastoral care will not be tolerated and must immediately cease.” 

“If they do not, I am prepared to move the case of Father Pfleger to the Independent Review Board of another diocese, which means the process will have to begin anew.”

Pfleger was removed from ministry as pastor of St. Sabina parish on Chicago’s South Side in January, after an accusation of sexual abuse of a minor dating back several decades was made against the priest. Two additional accusations have since been made public against Pfleger. As the preliminary canonical investigation into the accusations proceeds, local Catholics and parish leaders have mounted a public campaign in defense of their former pastor.

The archdiocesan Independent Review Board is charged with examining accusations of sexual abuse against clerics of the archdiocese and providing a recommendation to the cardinal about their plausibility. If an allegation is deemed to be plausible, in line with the minimum standards of canon law, a formal canonical penal process can begin. 

The board is composed of 10 members: a priest of the archdiocese, two deacons, and a group of independent lay people chosen to include various backgrounds including psychiatry, social work, legal expertise, parents, and victim/survivors of child sexual abuse.

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 accusations against the priest has been met with skepticism by his former parishioners, who have demanded that the archdiocese close its canonical investigation and return him to ministry.

In addition to harassing behavior against individual members of the IRB, Cupich also warned about an “even more concerning” campaign organized by parish members to flood archdiocesan phone lines which, the cardinal said, are “dedicated to receiving calls from victims and civil authorities.”

“This tactic is offensive and an injustice, as it may discourage those calling to report abuse and seek pastoral care if they cannot get through to our staff. This ploy also obstructs public authorities as they attempt to reach our staff through these phone lines,” the cardinal wrote to interim parish administrator Fr. Thulani Magwaza.

“In short, it serves no one.”

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Cupich reiterated that people could write to the archdiocese’s Office of Child Abuse Investigation and Review to express support for Pfleger. 

The cardinal concluded his letter by informing Fr. Magwaza that “there will be no further warnings.”

The  letter, and the apparent campaign of “intimidation” by members of the parish, are the latest escalation in the stand off between the archdiocese and St. Sabina.

In February, the parish announced that it was withholding $100,000 per month from the archdiocese until Pfleger is returned to St. Sabina as pastor. The amount includes the archdiocesan income assessment on the parish of 10%, amounting to some $13,000 per month. The other withheld funds represent financial obligations to the archdiocese from the parish attached school, including property and liability insurance payments.

The decision to withhold the money was taken and announced by “the Cabinet and Leadership of the Faith Community of St. Sabina,” which appears to function as the parish council, led by Fr. Magwaza. 

At the time, the parish cabinet said the decision was “the next strategic move to keep the pressure on the Archdiocese to expedite the alleged abuse investigation” into Pfleger.

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Pfleger served in the parish of St. Sabina since 1981. In January, a man filed a complaint with the archdiocese that Pfleger had sexually abused him as a minor in the late 1970s. Since then, two more men, including the brother of the original accuser, have made similar allegations. 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.

When Pfleger was removed from ministry, Jan. 5, Cardinal Cupich appointed 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.”

While the titles of “senior pastor” and “associate pastor” do not exist in canon law, Magawaza appears to have served as parochial vicar of the parish under Pfleger, until the latter’s removal in January.

Magawaza’s apparent leadership of coordinated efforts by the parish community to oppose the archdiocesan investigation, withhold funds from the chancery, and intimidate members of the IRC could be construed by the archdiocese as a rejection of the cardinal’s governing authority, a canonical crime.