Chicago priest Fr. Michael Pfleger remains out of ministry and away from his parish in the city’s South Side, after a report from the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services said its investigation had found allegations against the priest “unfounded.”
The priest’s canonical case is not yet concluded, the Chicago archdiocese has said, and the state’s finding does not exonerate him.
Pfleger’s case highlights the canonical and legal maze in which priests can find themselves when facing an allegation decades old, and exemplifies the distinctions between civil and ecclesiastical investigations on charges of child sexual abuse.
On Jan. 5, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced that Pfleger, a priest well-known for his social justice activism, had been accused of “sexual abuse of a minor more than 40 years ago,” and that he had been immediately “requested” to step aside from all public ministry. The priest is accused of sexually abusing two brothers decades ago.
What does the Pfleger case say about how bishops and priests are treated differently while under investigation? Read here.
On Friday, NBC5 reported a letter sent by the Illinois Division of Child and Family Services to Pfleger, which acknowledged that agency had investigated a Jan. 4 report of suspected child abuse.
After a “thorough evaluation” the agency had “determined the report to be ‘unfounded,’” the letter said.
“This does not necessarily mean that an incident did not occur,” DCFS said, only that available evidence did not prove an act of abuse.
Pfleger’s supporters initially cheered the letter. But a DCFS spokesman clarified on Friday that the DCFS investigation’s scope was limited to danger for children in the present. Even though archdiocesan officials are required to notify DCFS of historic allegations of child abuse, the agency does not review the past.
“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 itself clarified in a statement Friday that that the “agency was investigating risk, not allegations of abuse that occurred more than four decades ago.”
“It is important to note that the unfounded finding does not reflect an investigation by DCFS of the recent allegations against Father Pfleger by two adult brothers and therefore should not be viewed as a judgment as to his guilt or innocence in those matters.”
The archdiocese explained that its independent review board is still investigating the allegations, and “will communicate its findings in due course,” according to local media.
After a diocese receives an allegation of child sexual abuse, and after reporting it to police, the diocese undertakes a canonical “preliminary investigation” of the facts. It then presents those facts to the diocesan review board, an independent board appointed by the bishop to advise him on handling cases.
Like most dioceses, Chicago has a policy of waiting until after a government investigation concludes before completing the Church investigation. The priest is removed from ministry as soon as the allegation is received.
The review board acts as a sort of consultative grand jury, charged with recommending to the bishop whether an allegation has the “semblance of truth” and should proceed to formal canonical prosecution.
If the board reccommends that the allegation has a “semblance of truth,” and the bishop agrees, the case is forwarded to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Vatican then decides whether to order a canonical trial in the case.
In canon law, the “semblance of truth” is a very low standard of proof - described by the U.S. bishops’ conference as “not manifestly false or frivolous.”
Many review boards in the United States go beyond the mandate of universal canon law, to issue statements determining allegations to be “credible” or “substantiated.” Those terms are not always defined by diocesan policies, and are not consistently defined across the U.S.
Clerical rights advocates say that using terms like “credible” or “substantiated” implies guilt, and are often used even before priests have had opportunity to defend themselves.
Once a review board has publicly ruled an accusation to be “credible,” it can seem impossible for a priest to return to ministry, critics say, even if there is an obvious lack of evidence - especially in cases decades old.
Pfleger, through his lawyer, has consistently stated his innocence and released the content of messages from one of the accusers, apparently demanding thousands of dollars in exchange for dropping the accusation.
The archdiocese has come under public criticism from Pfleger’s parishioners for its handling of the priest’s case, even after a second accusation from the original accuser’s brother, was received a few weeks after the priest was removed from ministry. On Wednesday, the archdiocese was forced to issue a public statement defending the process being used in Pflerger’s case.
“The Archdiocese of Chicago’s policies and protocols for dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy have been developed and refined over 30 years,” the statement insisted. “They have served as the framework for national and global policies and aim to address the crime and sin of abuse that has caused enormous pain to victims and their families.”
“Every case is handled in a professional, impartial and consistent manner,” the archdiocese said, and “we wait until civil authorities have finished their work or indicate we are free to begin our own investigation.”
Neither the U.S. bishops’ conference norms, nor the Archdiocese of Chicago’s policies, spell out what should happen to a priest if an allegation against him is judged to have the “semblance of truth,” but there is not enough evidence to proceed to a canonical trial or penal process. Priests in that situation can end up in a kind of clerical limbo in which the bishop will not return him to ministry, but does not have any evidence to justify punishing him. In some cases, such priests are pressured to ask for laicization.
It is not yet clear when the Chicago review board is expected to issue a recommendation to Cardinal Cupich on Pfleger’s case.