CHICAGO (CBS) -- Blase Cardinal Cupich is reinstating Rev. Michael Pfleger as pastor of Saint Sabina parish, four months after he was asked to step aside from his duties, after an Archdiocese review board cleared him of allegations of sexual abuse.
"The nightmare is over," Pfleger said, surrounded by dozens of supporters and parishioners on the steps of St. Sabina, speaking for the first time since he was removed from St. Sabina. Many hugged the priest, clapped and shouted words of praise and support for Pfleger.
"My status (is) I'm reinstated as a senior pastor beginning June 5 I'm back living here as of today," Pfleger said.
"In accordance with our policies for the protection of children and youth, the archdiocese Independent Review Board assisted by our Office of Child Abuse Investigation and Review and outside investigators conducted a thorough review of the allegations. The Review Board has concluded that there is insufficient reason to suspect Father Pfleger is guilty of these allegations," Cupich wrote in a letter to the Saint Sabina Parish.
"This conclusion is the strongest statement of innocence that the Archdiocese can make under their rules and regulations," said Pfleger's attorney, James Figliulo.
Pfleger was removed from St. Sabina in January, after two brothers accused him of sexually abusing them decades ago. A third accuser later came forward.
After the review board cleared Pfleger, Cupich said the pastor will be reinstated at Saint Sabina effective the weekend of June 5-6.
Pfleger thanked the St. Sabina parish leadership and church community for their support during his absence. At times, he appeared to wipe away tears as he thanked those who believed in him.
"Those known and unknown who believed in me and prayed for me and stood by me, and believed in me and not the accusations," Pfleger said.
He added "I've been frustrated. I've been angry. I've been depressed and I've been discouraged. "I'm a man of faith but I'm also a human being who believes."
Back in January, the outspoken clergyman and civil rights activist said he was "devastated, hurt and yes angry," after he was asked to step away from ministry as the Archdiocese of Chicago investigates a child sex abuse claim against him from more than 40 years ago.
"I can't possibly respond to the hundreds of Texts, emails, and calls that I have received from all across the nation since yesterday," Pfleger wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday morning. "I am devastated, hurt and yes angry, but I am first, a person of Faith, I Trust God. Please keep me in prayer and the Faith Community of St. Sabina. I have been asked by the Diocese not to speak out at this time. I am Blessed with good leadership and amazing members, whom I love.. Pray also for the person, my life is more than a 40 year old accusation, and on that and my Faith I will stand...The Lord is my Shepherd..... I love you.."
In a March letter, Pfleger complained that the investigation had been going on for more than two months, during which a separate investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has already wrapped up, and during which neither he nor the St. Sabina community has received much information about the Archdiocese investigation or why it is taking so long. He placed the word "investigation" in quotation marks when referring to the probe by the Archdiocese.
Shortly after the announcement that would be removed from St. Sabina during the investigation, the parish community came out in full support and has stood by Pfleger during the ordeal.
"Pastor Pfleger is a fighter who is typically very vocal. However he is sensitive to the gravity of this investigation process," said Associate Minister Kimberly Lymore. "Pastor Pfleger's 45 years of ministry speaks for itself."
Chicago community activists also voiced their support for Pfleger. They said his activism and work to end violence in the Chicago area is still needed.
"We need people like Father Pfleger, who has been a pillar in Chicagoland, and nationally. We need his presence right now," said Tio Hardiman, president of Violence Interrupters Inc.
Pfleger, 71, was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago on May 14, 1975. In 1981, at the age of 31, he became the youngest full pastor in the diocese when he was appointed pastor of Saint Sabina. Since 1968, Father Pfleger has lived and ministered in the African-American community on both the west and south sides of Chicago, according to his bio on St. Sabina's website.
"We believe wholeheartedly that he will be exonerated fully, and he will be right back here pastor here soon," said activist Ja'Mal Green.
Pfleger has long been a vocal priest - advocating for the underprivileged and against violent across Chicago. He has also stirred up controversy – in 2008, he was suspended for mocking Hillary Clinton as she ran against Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary.
The Sabina family has stood in support of Pfleger, even when the Archdiocese tried to reassign him.
Pfleger wrote that he is innocent of the allegations against him and believes that the Review Board and the Cardinal will conclude that the allegations are unfounded and restore him to ministry and St. Sabina.
Two of Pfleger's original accusers – two brothers – shared their story exclusively with CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov. They told her they could no longer keep their secret.
The brothers who made the earlier accusations said they were each around 12 or 13 when the sexual abuse started 40 years ago. Both said Pfleger's prominent standing in his community kept them speaking out until now.
A third man said he was 18 when an alleged incident with Pfleger occurred, but he said he came forward after hearing the brothers' claims.
Cardinal Blase Cupich asked Pfleger to step aside from the ministry back in January as he announced the "difficult news" that the Archdiocese is investigating a claim that Pfleger sexually abused a minor more than 40 years ago.
"Father Pfleger has agreed to cooperate fully with my request and will live away from the parish while this matter is investigated," Cupich wrote in a letter to the St. Sabina community.
As for the three men who made the accusations against Pfleger, he said he would pray for them.
"I forgive them. Forgiveness is not only about them, it's about me. And I pray for them. And I have to," Pfleger said. "I want to go forward. I've been on enough on a pause button for five months. And we're pushing play."
Eugene Hollander, the brothers' attorney, said they are disappointed and so is he.
"I totally disagree with it. We provided overwhelming evidence to the review board," Hollander said.
Hollander added, "People believe what they want to believe, but my clients on their own were credible – credible – and taken together, the evidence was staggering."
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