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Bishops Fell Short, Poll Shows

Sex Abuse Policy Dissatisfies Catholics

By Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 19, 2002; Page A01


An overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics say their bishops still have not gone far enough to protect children from predatory priests, and they are deeply divided over the new guidelines adopted by bishops to deal with sexually abusive clergymen, according to a Washington Post survey.

Slightly more than half of all American Catholics and a larger majority of non-Catholics said they disapproved of the policy passed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week in Dallas, which would permanently bar abusive priests from all church-related public duties but would not automatically remove them from the priesthood.

Two-thirds of Catholics said the bishops' guidelines fail to do enough to address the problem of child abuse by priests, a view shared by three-fourths of the general public.

"Just pulling them out of the public eye won't do it at all," said Sharon Franckey, 44, a Catholic homemaker in Eureka, Ill. "I think they should lose their priesthood."

But the survey also found that a growing majority of Catholics trust their church to handle the issue of abusive priests in the future. And the overall rating of the church among Catholics remains broadly favorable. Taken together, these findings suggest that Catholics' faith in their church remains strong, even as their doubts about church leaders continue to grow.

Still, the survey results and follow-up interviews with Catholics who participated in the poll just as strongly suggest that the bishops' actions last week did little to heal the deep wounds inflicted by the ever-widening sex scandal.

"I have been very angry," said Joel Traeger, 27, a financial services adviser in Cary, N.C. "This was the icing on the cake. It was as if the hypocrisy had reached a head. It turned me off to the religion I was born with."

The bishops themselves were singled out for criticism. Barely half of the Catholics interviewed expressed satisfaction with the leadership they provide, while more than four in 10 were dissatisfied. And the proportion of Catholics who held a favorable view of their own bishop had dropped 11 percentage points since late March, to 65 percent.

"It seemed like everybody in the conference had a different idea," said Van Durstock, 67, a retired United Parcel Service truck driver in Taylor Mill, Ky. "It seemed a lot of them were worried about ifs, ands and buts, different ways of dealing with wording."

The words Durstock used to propose his own policy were simple and direct: "One strike and you should be out, if you're a bishop, cardinal or priest."

In the survey, overwhelming majorities of Catholics and non-Catholics called for tough new measures to hold bishops accountable for past failures to take action against abusive priests -- an issue that now seems poised to touch off the next round of controversy in the church.

More than eight in 10 Catholics and non-Catholics said bishops should resign if they ever had transferred troubled priests to other churches rather than report them to authorities.

Equally large majorities said those bishops should be removed by the church if they fail to step down voluntarily -- action that some fear could decimate the ranks of the church hierarchy.

At the conference in Dallas, U.S. bishops deferred the issue of how to hold themselves accountable and directed an internal committee to review the issue for six months.

A total of 1,004 randomly selected adults, including 355 self-described Catholics, were interviewed Sunday and Monday night for this survey. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points for the overall results and plus or minus 5 percentage points for the Catholic subsample.

The Post survey suggests that the policy approved by bishops last Friday clearly didn't go far enough to counter critics within and outside the Catholic Church.

Those guidelines strip an offending priest of all his public duties and permanently bar him from ministering in a church, school, hospital or other institution. An offending priest would not be able to celebrate Mass publicly, wear the Roman collar or otherwise identify himself as a priest.

But offending clergymen would not automatically be removed from the priesthood. At the discretion of their bishops, some would be allowed to enter a monastery, retirement home or other type of strictly controlled setting with no direct contact with minors.

The new policy clearly isn't enough for many Catholics: 53 percent disapproved of the guidelines, while 44 percent supported them.

Seventy percent of all Catholics said they disapproved of the way their church has responded to the problem of sexually abusive priests, an increase of 11 percentage points since late April. Half said they "strongly" objected to the church's actions.

The crisis in the Catholic Church has been deeply felt. The most common emotional response: anger, said 40 percent of Catholics, up from 36 percent in March. Slightly fewer -- 37 percent -- said they were dissatisfied but not angry with the church's response, which many Catholics dismissed as too slow in coming. Only 22 percent said they were either satisfied (17 percent) or pleased (5 percent).

"It's just because they got caught," said Damon Dinella, 23, who attends Salve Regina University, a Catholic school in Newport, R.I. "I'm not buying into it. I don't care what the policy is, it's a little too late."

But along with anger and disappointment, the survey found the church retains a vast reservoir of trust among the faithful.

A large majority of Catholics remain satisfied with the leadership provided by their parish priests. Though most Catholics said church officials had been guilty in the past of covering for pedophile priests, most have faith that church leaders are now strongly focused on preventing further abuse.

Nearly seven in 10 -- 67 percent -- of all Catholics surveyed said they trusted the church to deal with this issue in the future, an increase of 8 percentage points since April. Another positive sign for the church: The proportion of all Americans who expressed renewed faith in the Catholic Church on this issue had increased 10 percentage points, to 50 percent.

Tony Valentine, 41, an acting teacher living in Safety Harbor, Fla., is both critical of the church and hopeful about its future.

"I think they've taken a big step in publicly dealing with it and admitting there is a problem," Valentine said. "I think they will deal with it, but I think they will deal with it at a pace that is much slower than our justice system."

2002 The Washington Post Company