April 4, 2002
A growing majority of Catholics are sharply critical of the way that the Catholic Church has handled instances of child abuse by priests and believe the scandal has deeply tarnished the church's reputation, according to a national survey by the Washington Post, ABC News and Beliefnet.com.
The survey suggests that weeks of media reports about priests who are sexual predators have led many devout Catholics to wrestle with long-held beliefs and assumptions about their church and its leaders.
Most American Catholics acknowledge what most of them recently denied: Pedophilia is a serious problem in the priesthood. Seven in 10 Catholics said sexual abuse of children by priests is a "major problem that demands immediate attention," up from fewer than half in a similar survey in late February.
The poll's questions fell into three areas: the scandal's effect on the faith of Catholics, its effect on the church and how the church should respond.
A total of 1,086 randomly selected adults were interviewed, including 503 self-identified Catholics. Seven out of 10 of the Catholics characterized the scandal as a "crisis" for the church.
Most Catholics disapproved of the way the church and its national leaders have responded to the widening scandal, though most absolved their parish priests from blame. A large majority said the church had previously worked harder to cover up instances of sexual abuse than to prevent them from occurring.
At the same time, the survey found that the revelations of clerical misconduct have done little to shake the faith of an overwhelming majority of Catholics -- particularly committed churchgoers who attend services every week.
Fewer than one in 10 Catholics said they've cut back on donations to their church. One in seven said the revelations have caused them to re-examine their faith. Only 3 percent said they might leave the church over the scandal.
R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said the "silver lining" of the poll's findings is that "although people are upset by the scandal, there is a sense that the church is both bigger and smaller than this: bigger because the church belongs to the whole people of God, not just to the clergy ... and smaller because they are satisfied with the church and their priests at the parish level."
But other experts said the results dovetail with many years of previous polling that have have found growing numbers of Catholics turning away from the church's teachings on divorce, birth control, homosexuality and sex outside of marriage.
"An unexpected source -- pedophilia -- has become the locus for open struggle and unhappiness with the leadership," said Catholic University sociologist William D'Antonio.
Most Catholics surveyed said they believe the church is working to prevent pedophilia instead of merely attempting to hide it from public view. Seven in 10 were at least somewhat confident that the church would be able to "solve the problem of sexual abuse of children by priests" -- a view far more likely to be expressed by more observant Catholics than those who went to church infrequently.
The survey also found that accusations of sexual abuse of children by clergy members are not a problem just for the Catholic Church. Six percent of Catholics said they were aware of instances of sexual misconduct in their parish -- but so did 6 percent of non-Catholics.
The survey found that 73 percent of Catholics continue to hold a favorable view of the church. But that's down from 88 percent in February -- a 15 point drop in five weeks. Among Americans, 55 percent had a positive view of the Catholic Church, an 8-point drop.
The poll was conducted by telephone from March 25 to 28. Margin of error for the results is plus or minus 4 percentage points for the entire sample and plus or minus 5 percentage points for Catholics.