CHICAGO -- An activist Catholic priest cleared by an Archdiocese of Chicago investigation into claims that he sexually abused several boys decades ago returned to the pulpit of his longtime church Sunday for the first time in five months.
"It's good to be home," the Rev. Michael Pfleger repeatedly told congregants of the Faith Community of St. Sabina, describing his time away during the investigation as a "painful nightmare."
Pfleger, 72, was placed on leave in January amid allegations from two brothers who said he sexually abused them as children starting in the 1970s. A third man later also alleged that Pfleger molested him once in 1979 when he was 18. Last month, the archdiocese concluded there was "insufficient reason to suspect" that he had abused children. A police investigation remains open.
His first service back at the largely Black church on Chicago's South Side was as spirited as ever, with live music, dancing and reenergized congregants who have fiercely backed their priest. Pfleger, who is white, thanked congregants for supporting him and vowed to resume his activism, especially against gun violence, with even more gusto.
"I'm going to fight harder, because I'm stronger, I'm better and I'm wiser. ... The last five months have been a roller coaster of hurt and anger and depression and pain and not knowing what people are thinking about you," he said, his voice breaking at times.
To support Pfleger, church members have held rallies, flooded archdiocese phone lines, threatened to withhold church dues and launched a letter-writing campaign. On Sunday, some wore T-shirts featuring the priest's photo and the message "Pfleger is back." Among those in attendance was filmmaker Spike Lee, who is friends with Pfleger and whose 2015 movie "Chi-raq" featured a character inspired by Pfleger played by John Cusack.
Pfleger is known for his anti-violence activism and for bolstering neighborhood development in the largely low-income neighborhood surrounding the church. He's also been in the spotlight for clashing with church leaders, having been suspended twice before this year, including in 2008 during Barack Obama's presidential campaign when he mocked primary opponent Hillary Clinton.
Police have said their investigation remains "open and active" but haven't provided any details. Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx has said police haven't presented any information for her office to review or determine if criminal charges are appropriate.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services completed its review in February, concluding there was no credible evidence of child abuse or neglect.
During Sunday's service, Pfleger talked about street violence in Chicago. He also acknowledged the damage that the allegations did to his reputation.
He said the accusations to "destroy his character" began with an "extortion letter." One of the brothers, who are in their 60s, has acknowledged that he asked Pfleger for $20,000.
"I know my name will be damaged for the rest of my life," Pfleger said as congregants booed. "But most of that is by people that hated me anyway. There are people watching today that are not happy that I'm back. But take off your party hat and blow out the candles. I'm back."