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(Giuseppe Lami/Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — A new survey reveals that more U.S. Catholics are questioning whether they should remain in the church today than when news of the “Spotlight” child sex abuse scandal broke in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002.

According to a poll released Wednesday (March 13) by Gallup, more than a third of U.S. Catholics — 37 percent — surveyed in January and February said they have questioned whether they should remain in the church. That’s up from 22 percent in 2002, when The Boston Globe published its report detailing widespread child sex abuse by priests in the city.

Frequent churchgoers were less likely than other Catholics to say they are rethinking their affiliation with the faith this year. Only 22 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly today said they have considered leaving the faith, compared with 37 percent of those who attend nearly weekly or monthly and 46 percent of those who seldom or never attend.

However, all groups showed an increase of 10 percentage points or more compared with the 2002 polling. Back then, 12 percent of those who attended church weekly, 24 percent of those who attended nearly weekly or monthly and 29 percent of those who seldom or never attended had considered leaving the church.

The shift comes in the wake of the 1,300-page grand jury report released by Pennsylvania’s attorney general in August 2018, which included accounts of alleged sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests against more than 1,000 children in that state over a 70-year span. At least 14 attorneys general in other states have since said they would launch their own investigations or reviews of clergy abuse, and federal authorities have initiated reviews as well.

In November 2018, police searched the offices of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese — the see of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — as part of an investigation into a priest accused of abuse in Texas.

The flurry of renewed coverage of the scandal was compounded by allegations of an abuse cover-up in Chile that led to the resignation of several bishops there last year; the conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell in February on charges of sexually abusing two choirboys in the 1990s; and the defrocking of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick after allegations that the onetime archbishop of Washington, D.C., sexually abused seminarians and a minor earlier in his career.

Pope Francis attempted to address the scandal in February by hosting a four-day conference at the Vatican on the subject, where prominent bishops heard from multiple abuse survivors and the pontiff called for an “all-out battle” against abuse in the church. However, many advocates for survivors left the gathering disappointed by what they saw as a lack of concrete action.

Even so, Gallup reports that most American Catholics still largely support Pope Francis, with 58 percent saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in him. Roughly the same amount — 59 percent — said they had the same level of confidence in the priest at their church, but only 30 percent said the same about U.S. bishops and other Catholic leaders in the country.

Differences in confidence levels arise when Catholics are broken out by church attendance. Among Catholics who attend church weekly, 86 percent said they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the priests at their church, compared with 64 percent of those who attend weekly or monthly and 39 percent of those who never attend.

Notably, there was more consistent agreement among the groups about their confidence in Pope Francis, with 68 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly saying they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in him, 61 percent who attend weekly or monthly saying so and 50 percent of those who never attend.

Gallup hasn’t asked the same question about confidence in the past for comparison. But it did release data in January showing that the percentage of U.S. Catholics who rate the honesty and ethical standards of the clergy as “very high” or “high” is at its lowest since at least 2004: Only 31 percent of Catholics rated clergy as such in 2018, an 18-point drop from 2017 and a 32-point drop from a 2008 spike in support.

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JR Cosgrove
5 years 3 months ago

This headline and poll shows the lack of Catholic education in the United States. There have been many bad popes and bad priests in the past. It should have zero effect on what one believes. The real crisis is belief and not the clergy. If one believes there is no issue of faith.

Craig B. Mckee
5 years 3 months ago

"That the Vatican (AND MILQUETOAST ARTICLES LIKE THIS ONE!] continue to speak of a scandal instead of a crisis, or at least to use the terms interchangeably, suggests an unwillingness to come to grips with reality: to admit that there is persistent moral failure — at times criminal — protracted over generations within the clerical and hierarchical leadership and diffuse throughout the local and national Churches, reaching all the way to Rome and through the Curia — its precise extent and depth there is not yet fathomed — and all the way to the Apostolic Palace." [where Pope Francis wisely chooses not to sleep!]


James M.
5 years 3 months ago

The disclosures of 2002 were very ugly - but, they pre-dated the Philadelphia Reports of 2005 & 2018 & the Murphy Report of 2009. Those reports showed that the depravity was even greater than was known in 2002, and that it was by no manner of means limited to the USA alone. And 2002 was before it became clear just how much the US Church was prepared to resist legal suits against it.

So the years between 2002 and 2019 have shown just how very badly the CC has been capable of behaving. No wonder its ability to convince Catholics - let alone anyone else ! - of its claims has taken a beating. What is surprising is that the loss of trust in the CC has not been far greater. It is trusted far more than it has any right to expect. That suggests that Catholics are very forgiving toward it. If it has any sense whatsoever, it will do nothing further to alienate those who are so very patient with it.

This is not a “mere” scandal - as though there were any such a thing; it is an enormous crisis. And those who govern the CC seem unable to appreciate this. The absolute refusal of the CC to model the behaviour of Christ, and its zeal to oppress and silence the defenceless to whom He was sent to preach the Good News of salvation, makes the CC part of the “culture of death”. To call this a gross betrayal of the Church’s identity & mission is no exaggeration.

Mary Flowers
5 years 3 months ago

With the background of my "catholic" education from elementary school through MA in Spirituality, I no longer have unquestioned loyalty to the Catholic Church. Many issues go unresolved, i.e. the ordination of women and married men, participation of the divorced to include reception of the Eucharist, etc. Crises are many within the CC. Maturity to address problems towards resolution is absent. I experience Jesus' Spirit in the world, not just in a building.

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