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Posted January 16, 2005

Survey: Catholics worried that
sex abuse costs curtail church work

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

A survey of Catholics who regularly attend church shows a growing concern about the church's financial ability to fulfill its mission because of the costs related to the clergy sex abuse crisis.

The crisis has also increased the desire by Catholics in the pew for greater church accountability on financial issues, according to the survey conducted by telephone during the first half of December 2004.

"Clearly, nearly three years after the clergy abuse scandal broke, one of the lingering elements is that parishioners are still not content with the financial stewardship of the church," said Charles E. Zech, economics professor at Catholic-run Villanova University near Philadelphia and an expert in church-giving patterns.

Zech helped draft the questionnaire and wrote the analysis accompanying the survey.

The survey was sponsored by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities in Washington. Known as FADICA, it is a consortium of private organizations providing funds to Catholic organizations and programs. Zogby International conducted the survey of 803 self-identified Catholics, of whom 81 percent said they attended Mass at least once a week. The rest, 19 percent, said they attended Mass "almost once a week."

The survey was made public Jan. 11. Its margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percent.

The survey also reported that 14 percent of those questioned had decreased their parish contributions and 19 percent had decreased their donations to national church collections because of the crisis. At the same time, 8 percent had increased their giving at the parish level and 5 percent had upped their donations at the national level, it said.

These findings of decreasing donations by some and increased giving by others tend to offset each other regarding dollar figures, Zech said in his analysis.

They are "consistent with some national tallies that reported a decrease in the number of givers at each level while dollar giving has remained fairly constant," he said.

However, when asked what single issue had the "greatest impact on your decision to support the church financially," 8 percent of the respondents listed the sex abuse scandal. The most frequent answer, given by 41 percent, was "recognition that the church needs my contribution." Twenty percent listed the economy.

The survey said that 65 percent of the respondents expressed concern that the cost of settling clergy child sex abuse cases would harm the church's ability to conduct its mission. This was up 10 percent from a similar FADICA survey conducted in 2002.

Greater financial accountability, in general, by church officials was favored by 70 percent of the respondents, up 5 percent from a similar survey in 2002. A higher number, 76 percent, said that each diocese should give a full accounting of the costs related to the sex abuse crisis.

Sixty-one percent of those surveyed favored yearly independent audits of church finances at all levels. That number was down from the 66 percent reported in 2002.

Francis Butler, FADICA president, said the continued upswing in calls for greater accountability by regular churchgoers is important because they are the backbone of the church's financial support.

Efforts need to be made to broaden parish donor involvement in church financial life, said Butler in an introduction to the survey findings.

"Creating a culture of trust and transparency will not occur without deliberate attention to the way in which the church engages its donors," he said.

Regarding ways of paying costs related to sex abuse cases, respondents were allowed to give multiple answers. Coming in first was selling church property, favored by 38 percent. Next came holding a special diocesan collection, 36 percent; declaring bankruptcy, 35 percent; and closing parishes, 28 percent.

In other survey findings:

-- 47 percent of the respondents said they had an adequate understanding of how contributions are used.

-- 27 percent were unaware that several dioceses had declared bankruptcy because of the sex abuse crisis.

-- 57 percent said that being aware of the bankruptcies had no effect on contribution decisions.

-- 17 percent said they had not changed their contributions but would do so if they learned the money would be used to pay for lawsuits.