Poll: Canadians say the Catholic Church has failed in its sex abuse response

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, in Quebec City, during celebrations on Dec. 12, 2015, for the Jubilee of Mercy (CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence)The Notre-Dame Cathedral, in Quebec City, during celebrations on Dec. 12, 2015, for the Jubilee of Mercy (CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence)

Most Canadians, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, agreed in a recent poll that “the Catholic Church as a whole has done a poor job of addressing this issue of clerical sexual abuse.” And 55 percent said the Catholic Church, still the country’s largest religious denomination, will be “weakened” by its handling of the abuse crisis, a view shared by 42 percent of practicing Catholics.

In the survey conducted online in early May and just published by the British Columbia-based Angus Reid Institute, 78 percent of all Canadians (including non-Catholics) gave the church a poor grade.

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55 percent said the Catholic Church, still the country’s largest religious denomination, will be “weakened” by its handling of the abuse crisis.

Catholics who attend Mass at least monthly, described in the report as “practicing Catholics,” were the most optimistic about how the church has handled the abuse crisis, though a majority, 52 percent, still said that the church has done a poor or very poor job. That was far lower than the 93 percent of former Catholics and the 66 percent of Catholics attending Mass infrequently (called “occasional Catholics”) who shared this view.

As for Pope Francis, who has faced criticism that he was slow to grasp the severity of the abuse crisis, 60 percent of all Canadians said he is doing a poor or very poor job in handling sexual abuse. He fared better with practicing Catholics, with 69 percent saying he has done a very good or good job handling the crisis, and occasional Catholics, 55 percent of whom agreed.

Last year, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted new policies designed to protect children from sexual abuse. Though critics have said the 69 recommendations in the report do not go far enough, others have praised the document. Earlier this year, former Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, S.J., called it “a true aid to understanding how to move from theory to practice.” And in March, the Archdiocese of Montreal announced that five dioceses in Quebec would cooperate in an external audit of its files dating back to 1950 in order to understand how the dioceses handled sex abuse allegations.

But church leaders may need to do a better job communicating how they are handling the challenge, even to the most faithful.

Many Canadian Catholics responding to the survey said they are unaware if church leaders have taken steps in their local church to enact child protection policies. Forty-six percent of practicing Catholics and 80 percent of occasional Catholics said they were “not aware of any” concrete steps or policies instituted in their local churches.

Forty-six percent of practicing Catholics and 80 percent of occasional Catholics said they were “not aware of any” child protection policies instituted in their local churches.

When asked how the church is handling abuse today, 44 percent of all Canadians said they believe the church is “still covering things up as much as they can,” 50 percent said the church is “being more open but still guarded” and 7 percent said it is “now being as open and upfront as possible.”

Most practicing Catholics, 62 percent, said the church is “being more open but still guarded.”

The causes of the abuse crisis vary, according to experts, but many church leaders have said a culture of clericalism is at least partly to blame. Pope Francis, for example, wrote in a letter last year, “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

Some Catholics said one way to fight clericalism is to include laypeople in the church’s decision-making processes. In the Angus Reid poll, 31 percent of practicing Catholics said there should be “more” or “way more” room for lay involvement in their parish. Forty percent said the same about the church as a whole.

Almost a third (31 percent) of practicing Catholics said priests have “way too much power” or “too much power,” while 33 percent of occasional Catholics said the same.

Most Canadians, 55 percent, said they believe the church will be “weakened” by its handling of the abuse crisis, a view shared by 42 percent of practicing Catholics, 63 percent of occasional Catholics and 53 percent of former Catholics.

‘Occasional’ and ‘cultural’ Catholics remain a majority in Quebec

Catholicism remains the largest religious denomination in Canada, with 38 percent of residents identifying as Catholic, according to the latest government data at Statistics Canada. About a quarter of the country’s residents, 24 percent, say they profess no religious identity. Much of the Catholic population is in Quebec, where 64 percent of residents report being Catholic, though most go to Mass less than once per month.

According to the report, “Quebec also has Canada’s largest share of ‘cultural Catholics’: those who profess to ‘never’ attend mass but nevertheless identify themselves as Catholic.” Five percent of all Canadians describe themselves as “cultural Catholics.”

Like the United States, Canada is also home to a large number of former Catholics, with 10 percent of Canadians describing themselves this way.

Most former Catholics drifted away from the church as teens and young adults. There is no predominant reason, but many in the Angus Reid survey, who could give multiple responses, said they left because of disagreements with the church’s teaching on homosexuality and same-sex marriage (31 percent), disagreements over the church’s “views on women” (30 percent) and the “cover-up” of the sex abuse crisis (29 percent).

The abuse crisis appears to have somewhat hurt the image of the church in Canada. In a 2015 poll, the year Pope Francis visited the United States, Roman Catholics as a group had a net favorability rating (positive rating minus negative rating) of 36 percentage points among all Canadians. The 2019 survey found a net favorability rating of 26 percentage points. By contrast, Protestants and Jews each had a net favorability rating of 33 percentage points. Atheists had a net favorability of 11 points, evangelical Christians had a net favorability of four points, and Muslims had a net rating of negative 22 points.

The Angus Reid online survey was conducted from May 9 to 16, with a sample of 1,290 Canadian adults who are members of the research website The Angus Reid Forum. The sample was supplemented by a “booster group” of 321 practicing Catholics, for a total of 408 practicing Catholics in the survey.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jim Spangler
2 weeks 5 days ago

Not only the Canadian's feel this way, but the rest of the world. Something needs to be changed! Like the Church is no longer a kingdom ruled by a king and his princes.

Nick Kaspar
2 weeks 5 days ago

"Online Survey"....enough said. Online surveys are notoriously unreliable, not representative of the population at large, and normally scew in the direction that researchers want them to (i.e. confirmation bias). Look, the Church has a long way to go to make amends. It will probably take a decade or two before any trust is re-established. I just wish the media would stop promoting slip-shod research as Gospel Truth. It hurts scientific research when they do that.

Donald Kauke
2 weeks 5 days ago

The Angus Reid survey is not a random opinion survey but a survey of a population for which extensive demographic information has been gathered in advance. The sample is balanced across a population and consists of people who consent to be surveyed on assorted issues periodically. The population is referred to as a forum. Reid has been in the survey business for a long time.

Charles Erlinger
2 weeks 5 days ago

It is hard to tell from the article what specific factors were influential in terms of the accuracy of the resultant measurement. As I recall, representationalness of the sample has more influence on resultant accuracy than does sample size. It would be better, in terms of good journalism, to qualify the terms of the reported result more completely. Shorthand may be fine for court reporters and maybe even for breaking news dispatches, but it is unbecoming for weeklies that purport to be more thoughtful.

Dale Athlon
2 weeks 5 days ago

Pope Francis has said that homosexuals with gay tendencies should not be permitted to enter the seminaries. Until the response makes this a reality, we we likely have more pederast scandals.

Erin B
2 weeks 2 days ago

In other news, water is wet.

Jim Spangler
2 weeks 1 day ago

But, "truth is not truth!"!

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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