Catholics: Church in Midst of A 'Crisis'
Handling of Scandal Stirs Anger, but Poll Finds Strong Faith
By Richard Morin and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 4, 2002; Page A01
A growing majority of Catholics are sharply critical of the way the Roman 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 now acknowledge what a majority of them had 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.
"You heard stories, but you never realized it was such a big problem," said Kate Hickey, 45, a college English teacher in Suffern, N.Y., where she attends Sacred Heart Catholic Church. "Now I think it is. First it was allegations; now it's a fact."
The poll's questions fell into three areas: the scandal's impact on the faith of individual Catholics, its impact on the church and how the church should respond. Broadly speaking, the results show no lessening of faith, despite damage to the church's reputation and a nearly unanimous rejection of past practices that Catholics say allowed sexual abuses to be concealed.
A total of 1,086 randomly selected adults were interviewed for the poll, 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 worked harder to cover up instances of sexual abuse than to prevent them from occurring.
"That is the real tragedy: These situations have not been dealt with forthrightly, honestly and in a timely fashion," said Darren Burgess, 33, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, who attends St. Brendan's Catholic Church. "It's a problem with the culture that the church has where it's all denial, hush-hush, the quieter the better."
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 those 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 -- 14 percent -- of all Catholics said the revelations have caused them to re-examine their faith. Only 3 percent said they might leave the church over the scandal.
"It has affected my own view of the church, but it hasn't affected my faith," said Cheryl Melillo, 36, a homemaker who lives in North Haven, Conn., and attends Our Lady of Mount Carmel in nearby Hamden. "I am more mistrusting of the people between me and God. But my faith in God hasn't changed."
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 has 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. "The disagreement is not over the life, death and resurrection of Jesus -- the heart of Catholicism. The issues are democratic participation in the church, returning married priests to active ministry, the ordination of women and the church's teachings on sexuality and marriage."
Most Catholics surveyed said they believe the church is now 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.
"They're trying to come out with it and solve this," said Bill Crawford, 69, a retiree living in Southhampton, N.J., who attends Mass weekly at St. Mary's of the Lakes in nearby Medford. "They've admitted to their wrongs, even though some of these charges are 25 years old. The church has been around a long time. They've gone though many battles. I don't believe this will bring them down."
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 all Catholics said they were aware of instances of sexual misconduct in their parish -- but so did 6 percent of all non-Catholics.
The poll was conducted by telephone from March 25 to 28. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 4 percentage points and plus or minus 5 percentage points for Catholics. A similar poll was taken Feb. 19 by ABC News.
The difference in the results of the two polls appears to reflect the recent tide of accusations, admissions and resignations as the scandal has spread from Boston, where it began with one priest accused of molesting more than 130 children, to dioceses across the country.
Sixty-four percent of Catholics said the scandal has hurt the church's reputation, up from 51 percent in late February. Overall, about seven in 10 Americans believe the Catholic Church has been harmed by the revelations.
The survey found that 73 percent of all Catholics continue to hold a favorable view of the church. That's down from 88 percent in February. Among all Americans, 55 percent had a positive view of the church, an eight-point drop.
Two in three Catholics disapproved of the way the church has handled the scandal. Nearly half of all Catholics -- 45 percent -- said they "strongly" disapproved. Nearly six in 10 said the church was not doing enough to deal with the issue. An even larger majority were either "dissatisfied" (34 percent) or "angry" (36 percent) over the church's response.
Majorities of Catholics supported the way their parish priest and their bishop have handled the issue. Sixty percent said they would still "completely trust" their parish priest around children.
But many were more critical of national church leaders: 52 percent said they disapproved of the way the leadership has responded to the crisis, including about half of all Catholics who attend church every week.
"My priests and the bishop in our area are great, but the bishops in other areas have covered things up," said Jane Cornforth, 70, a retiree living in Fort Myers, Fla., who attends St. Andrews Catholic Church in Cape Coral. "They're mostly of the old school: Keep things quiet and under the table. But that's wrong these days. Nowadays you have to have all these things out in the open."
The survey also found that Catholics were clear about what should be done to help stop the problem of pedophile priests: End the secrecy and call the police.
Eight in 10 Catholics said the refusal of churches to report suspected child abuse to the police was a major contributor to the problem.
Three out of four Catholics also said the practice in some dioceses of quietly transferring suspected pedophile priests from parish to parish was a significant part of the problem -- and that it should stop.
An overwhelming majority of church members said parishioners should be informed when a local priest has been accused of sexually abusing a child. Seven in 10 said their diocese should release the names of priests who have been accused of abusing children.
Assistant director of polling Claudia Deane contributed to this report.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company