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When news broke this week that Chicago priest Michael Pfleger would be reinstated following multiple accusations of sexual abuse, one of his accusers was crushed. It had taken decades for him to even speak out about what he said he suffered at the hands of Pfleger, who is among the most well-known priests in the Catholic Church.
“It’s a cover-up because of his popularity,” the accuser, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, told VICE News. “They don’t see that side of him. They don’t know that side when I had bloody underwear. All they see is what’s going on with him now, what he has done since he has been at St. Sabina, the activist that he is now.”
The Chicago archdiocese initially removed Pfleger, a senior pastor at the St. Sabina Church on the South Side of Chicago, from his position earlier this year after he was accused of sexually abusing two minors and an 18-year-old several decades ago. But this week, the archdiocese announced that an internal investigation had found Pfleger, an internationally famous activist portrayed in Spike Lee’s movie Chi-raq, not guilty.
“The review board has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations,” stated a letter from Chicago Cardinal and Archbishop Blase Cupich.
Eugene Hollander, the lawyer for Pfleger’s three accusers, was shocked by the Church’s decision. “I find it unfathomable that they did not find sufficient evidence,” he said. “It just boggles my mind.” Referring to the same accuser who spoke to VICE News, Hollander said that Pfleger had “pulled his penis so hard that he bled profusely through his underwear.”
But Pfleger is not the only priest to be reinstated after accusations of sexual abuse and assault; he’s not even the only priest to be reinstated this past month. Since the pandemic broke out last year, VICE News has found that at least a dozen priests in the United States and Italy accused of sexual abuse of minors and other young people have been cleared of charges within the Church and deemed fit to return to their parishes. At least one has even been promoted.
In most of the cases uncovered by VICE News, the Catholic Church has also provided little to no insight into how, exactly, its officials determined that these priests weren’t guilty of sexual assault. And in at least three cases, the Church gave the priests back their jobs but added a glaring asterisk: They had to agree to abide by certain restrictions, such as staying away from kids.
“If there’s an accusation, they’ll remove them for a month, six months, a year with their ‘investigation,’ and then they say, ‘We find no credible evidence.’ And then they reinstate them,” said Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “So they just change the kind of style of what I consider cover-ups.”
Then, the burden ends up falling on the survivors.
“What more proof did they need?” asked one of Pfleger’s accusers. “I won’t even go to church because of what happened to me.”
“I was a kid”
In the 1970s, years before Pfleger became renowned for his protests against gun violence, Pfleger used to frequently invite people from the neighborhood to hang out in his rectory, one of his accusers told investigators for the Chicago archdiocese, according to records obtained by VICE News. They would drink Coca-Cola, watch movies, and listen to music.
“The rectory became a safe haven for me. Our neighborhood was horrible,” said the accuser, a retired member of the military. At one point, he began sometimes sleeping at the rectory. It soon became clear to him that “something” was going to happen if he spent the night in the rectory, but staying still felt like the better choice. “I did not think I could survive in that neighborhood.”
Then, one night, the man said Pfleger assaulted him.
“He started fondling me,” he said, according to the records reviewed by VICE News. “He actually ejaculated on my butt. That’s when I knew that his behavior was different, triggering mixed feeling[s] within me. I was a kid, thinking what’s going on and that this guy showed me compassion and love, or at least what I perceived to be love.”
Pfleger continued the nighttime sexual assaults throughout the accuser's adolescence, he said. Pfleger never spoke of what had happened in the daylight: “It was a suspended animation, and the next day would be a normal day.”
“What more proof did they need? I won’t even go to church because of what happened to me.”
After speaking with the investigators, Hollander’s clients asked to specifically share their stories with the internal review board investigating the allegations against Pfleger. Hollander said the board never spoke directly to the accusers.
“They were willing to travel and appear personally in front of the review board. They were never taken up on that,” he said.
“The independent review board thoroughly investigated the allegations against Father Pfleger, using the archdiocese child abuse investigation and review department and outside professional investigators,” the Archdiocese of Chicago told VICE News in a short statement, in response to multiple questions. “These processes included interviews of the accusers.”
Just 10 days before the Archdiocese of Chicago reinstated Pfleger, it also gave another Chicago priest, Lawrence Sullivan, his job back. A woman had accused Sullivan of sexually assaulting her in 1984, when she was 17, but Cupich wrote in a public letter that the accusation against Sullivan couldn’t be “substantiated” and added that the diocese had tried, unsuccessfully, to get more information from the accuser.
In April, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—a Vatican office that decides how to handle priests accused of sexual abuse—reinstated Kentucky priest Joseph Edward Bradley, two years after he was suspended over two reports of sexual abuse against a minor. Bradley’s own diocese had recommended that Bradley be suspended permanently, but the CDF overruled their decision and reinstated him. Still, Bradley is “banned from entering a primary or secondary school for a period of five years,” according to a letter from the diocese, which didn’t return a request for comment. (The local prosecutor also did not file criminal charges against Bradley due to the statute of limitations and what they said was a lack of evidence.)
The Vatican has also reinstated other priests who lacked their dioceses’ full support. When Joseph Hart, the emeritus bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, faced at least 12 sex abuse allegations, diocese officials found that six of the claims were credible. But when officials presented those findings to the CDF, the office disagreed. In January, the CDF “exonerated” him of seven allegations, then found that there wasn’t enough proof to back up another five allegations against the bishop. And two of the accusations didn’t warrant punishment at all, according to the CDF, because they involved alleged victims who, at 16 and 17 years old, didn’t count as minors under canon law at the time.
The CDF formally rebuked Hart but reaffirmed that he should not have “any contact with minors, youth, seminarians, and vulnerable adults.”
Steven Biegler, the current bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, suggested in a statement that the CDF’s findings did not necessarily mean that Hart was innocent. “I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you,” Biegler said. “I understand that this announcement will not bring closure to the survivors, their family members, Bishop Hart, and all those affected.”
The reinstatements continued: In December 2020, the CDF also cleared Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina, to return to his duties following an allegation of abuse in New York. (Guglielmone said he received a letter from the Vatican that said the allegation had “no semblance of truth.”) In November, the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, agreed to let Robert “Bud” Grant resume his positions at both a local university and parish after an allegation of sexual abuse that dated back to the 1990s. (The diocese concluded that the allegation didn’t qualify as childhood sexual abuse, because the alleged victim was too old under canon law at the time.)
Like Bradley and Hart, though, Grant’s return has some caveats: He must obey a long list of restrictions, including a “no touch policy” that largely forbids him from touching anyone under the age of 24, according to a statement from the diocese at the time of Grant’s reinstatement. The Diocese of Des Moines confirmed to VICE News that those restrictions remain in place.
In September, after a South Carolina prosecutor dropped charges against him, the Diocese of Charleston cleared Javier Heredia of abuse charges—a decision that, the diocese’s sexual abuse advisory board said, was based on both the findings of the criminal investigation and its own investigators. Heredia now appears to now be the priest for a Charleston church. The bulletin announcing his return to active ministry is just two sentences, with no mention of the allegations that kept him away. “Fr. Heredia has returned to St. Catherine and St. Michael after a two-year absence,” it reads. “Please pray for his success in resuming his ministry.”
A few weeks before that, in August, Robert J. Potts was reinstated as pastor of a church in Pennsylvania following allegations of sexual abuse. Local prosecutors had dropped the case, because it was beyond the statute of limitations, but the Diocese of Allentown said outside investigators—ex-FBI agents hired by the diocese—had determined that Potts hadn’t committed sex abuse.
In June 2020, Charles Kaza was reinstated in another Pennsylvania diocese, after the diocese said it couldn’t substantiate an abuse allegation against him. That same month, the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, declared that Gabriel Zeis would make an “imminent return to ministry,” after an allegation of “sexual misconduct with a minor” in 1975 was deemed “not credible” by his religious order. The order said a local prosecutor closed the case after they “called into question the credibility and accuracy of the allegation.” (The diocese told VICE News this week that Zeis has not resumed working in the diocese. The order didn’t reply to a question about where Zeis is now working.)
In May 2020, Peter Karalus, the vicar general of the Diocese of Buffalo, returned to his post after an abuse allegation was determined to be unsubstantiated. And in late March 2020, Peter Gori resumed his work as a pastor in Andover, Massachusetts.
These reinstatements have also taken place abroad. In January, Orazio Caputo, a priest in Italy accused of aiding a priest-run sexual abuse ring targeting minors, was reinstated in his church. In fact, he was also promoted to be a vice director of Caritas, the Catholic Church’s global charity. “I have no words,” the mother of the alleged victim told the Religion News Service.
The Vatican has also managed to overturn Italian justice rulings this past year: Also in January, the Diocese of Milan transferred Mauro Galli to a different parish, cutting short a six-year prison sentence from the Court of Milan. Last year, Luciano Massaferro, a priest in Italy’s Liguria region, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison by the Italian Supreme Court. His sentence was reduced, and Massaferro was recently reinstated at his church after the Church’s regional tribunal found him not guilty.
“One day at mass we saw him right in front of us,” one of his parishioners told a local paper. “We couldn’t believe our eyes.”
A legacy of secrecy
The Catholic Church has a long legacy of keeping priests accused of sexual misconduct in the fold. Following a plethora of reporting from the Boston Globe on the sexual abuse of children by priests in the early 2000s, a 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report found that, over the last seven decades, members of the clergy had abused more than 1,000 children. The local dioceses’ “playbook for concealing the truth,” the grand jury wrote, included a culture of secrecy and a tendency to shuffle around abusive priests to different communities.
“When a priest does have to be removed, don’t say why. Tell his parishioners that he is on ‘sick leave,’ or suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion.’ Or say nothing at all,” as the grand jury report describes the clergy’s unspoken rules for sweeping allegations under the rug. “If a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.”
“The lack of transparency in the process is really a problem. It’s pretty much always the case that the deliberations, investigations, if there are any, are really a black box.”
Gerard McGlone, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University who has spent his career working with and advocating for survivors of parochial abuse, has watched for decades as abusive priests have been moved or reinstated at positions within the Church. “I’m a survivor myself,” he said. “It took me years and years to understand, one, what the hell happened to me, and two, how in God’s name this man was shuffled around and put in more leadership positions. It shows systemic realities, but also it shows the fact that for survivors it takes time for us to begin to remember to begin to have the ability to give voice to our story.”
The reinstated priests may be innocent, but the Church’s secrecy surrounding the investigations makes it impossible to trust these reinstatement decisions, said Terry McKiernan, who works for Bishop Accountability, which tracks sex abuse allegations against the Catholic priests. And while dioceses frequently say that their investigators are “independent,” it’s often hard to discern just how much daylight lies between the investigators and the diocese.
“The lack of transparency in the process is really a problem,” McKiernan said. “It’s pretty much always the case that the deliberations, investigations, if there are any, are really a black box.”
In almost every case, he added, “We don’t know enough about the basis for these decisions to reinstate to really have any confidence in them, unfortunately.”
Some dioceses do shed more light on their investigative processes, but their methods are still largely opaque. In a statement announcing the reinstatement of Gori, the Archdiocese of Boston noted that the alleged dates of the abuse didn’t coincide with his assignment history, that the alleged victim couldn’t recall “details of the abuse,” and that the victim “declined to participate any further in the investigation.” The archdiocese also said that the local district attorney “was no longer pursuing an open investigation.” The Augustinian Order, of which Gori is a member, didn’t return a request for comment on their investigative practices.
But James Faluszczak, a former priest and sex abuse survivor turned advocate for other survivors, told VICE News that these kinds of development don’t mean that no abuse occurred. It’s no surprise to him when victims refuse to talk to the Catholic Church, since they’re accusing the Church itself of wronging them.
“Occasionally a priest will be reinstated just because some part of the allegation doesn’t add up from the standpoint of time and location,” Faluszczak said. “That doesn’t mean that the accuser isn’t a ‘bona fide victim.’ It just means that, OK, they thought it was Father X because Father X and Y were in the same parish at the same time and they were 5, and it’s hard to remember who was who.”
“These internal investigations are akin to HR investigating Bill Gates at Microsoft,” he added.
Back when he was a priest in Pennsylvania, Faluszczak worked under Kaza, who was then a vicar, Faluszczak said. In 1995, Faluszczak says, he told Kaza that he had been sexually harassed by female staffers. “I asked him to look into it, and he didn’t,” Faluszczak told VICE News.
Now, Faluszczak is left with questions about the more recent allegations against Kaza. “The public was not told anything about the nature, duration, location” of the allegation, he said. “Was it a boy? Was it a girl? Was it a minor? Was it in a high school? Was it in a parish? We knew nothing.”
Kaza declined to comment on these accusations. “I really am just happy to be back and I do not want to respond to any questions that could be put into some article,” he told VICE News. The Diocese of Erie, where both men worked, didn’t respond to a VICE News request for comment on Faluszczak’s accusation.
“There are so many survivors who have never come forward, even now,” McGlone said. “If we know that only 8 to 15 percent of survivors come forward—which is the data that the FBI has on sexual assault and child abuse—there are so many more survivors that we do not know about. We have to allow that data to sink in.”
An outcry of support
Pfleger’s flock supported him throughout his removal, rallying around the priest with letter-writing campaigns and outdoor rallies. They trumpeted the hashtag “#WeStandWithFatherPfleger.” In April, more than a month before Pfleger was reinstated, Cupich, the Chicago cardinal, wrote a letter to his St. Sabina congregation and asked them to stop “intimidating” the archdiocese and members of the independent review board investigating Pfleger’s case.
“Tactics of intimidation, especially those aimed specifically at the IRB [independent review board], are counterproductive, as they serve only to impede the process,” Cupich wrote. “Even more concerning is the tactic used this week to flood the archdiocese’s phone lines dedicated to receiving calls from victims and civil authorities.”
When Pfleger was cleared by the diocese, much of the community rejoiced. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best,” one longtime churchgoer told the Chicago Sun-Times. Big names also sent their congratulations: The actor John Cusack tweeted that Pfleger was “a true prophetic voice for justice,” while Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters, “I think we had to trust the archdiocese’s process. That process is now concluded. I'm grateful that Father Mike will be back at Saint Sabina’s.”
But for one of Pfleger’s accusers, the celebrated priest’s return feels like anything but justice.
“This makes me feel like another cop shooting another Black man and it’s swept under the rug and covered up and he’s returned back to work,” the accuser, who is Black, told VICE News. “That’s what I see. Another man of color mistreated because of the pigmentation and the color of my skin, because of the popularity of a child-abusive, molestation priest that’s a pedophile.”
If you need someone to talk to about an experience with sexual assault or abuse, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where trained staff can provide you with support, information, advice, or a referral. You can also access 24/7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.