Poll Casts Pall On Catholic Leaders

church abuse. scandal. AP

A new CBS News poll shows continuing fallout from the sex scandals engulfing the Catholic Church. Many Americans -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- hold senior Church leaders, including Pope John Paul the Second, responsible in the growing scandals involving child sex abuse by Catholic priests.

More than two-thirds think the Church has done a poor job dealing with the situation, which Catholics regard as its most important problem today. More than half think Church leaders in America should resign as a result. Catholics and non-Catholics think the Pope is not doing enough to solve the problem, and most respondents think the Pontiff has known about it all along.

But these scandals have not resulted in a blanket loss of faith by Catholics, or an indictment of the Catholic faith by non-Catholics. Most Americans believe only a few priests have engaged in this behavior, and that the Church is not more likely than other walks of life to have a problem with pedophilia. Very few Catholics personally know a priest who has been accused, or one of the accusers.

THE CHURCH AND PROBLEM PRIESTS

By more then four to one, Americans think the Church has handled the problem of priests sexually molesting children poorly. Catholics concur; 69% of those who identify themselves as Catholics today think their Church has handled things poorly; just 23% think it has done a good job.

HOW HAS CATHOLIC CHURCH HANDLED THE PROBLEM?
  • All
    Good job 16%
    Poor job 69

  • Catholics
    Good job 23%
    Poor job 69

    More than two thirds of Americans are closely following the story, with a quarter following it very closely. That group is especially negative. 81% of them think the Catholic Church has handled this poorly. In 1994, after similar charges of child sex abuse by priests came to light, by nearly two to one the public felt the Church handled those charges poorly as well. Still, that evaluation was more positive than it is today; just 47% said the Church had done a poor job then.

    Four in five Americans believe that Catholic Church leaders in this country should be held responsible for the way they handled the behavior of priests who molested children. Catholics feel exactly the same way.

    SHOULD CHURCH LEADERS IN U.S. BE HELD RESPONSIBLE?
  • All
    Yes 79%
    No 15

  • Catholics
    Yes 79%
    No 15

    Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston has been encouraged to resign, but has so far rejected doing so. A majority of Americans probably think he along with other Church leaders should resign. 56% of Americans believe Church leaders in this country should resign from office as a result of the way they handled these cases. 56% of Catholics also feel this way.

    SHOULD CHURCH LEADERS IN U.S. RESIGN?
  • All
    Yes 56%
    No 29

  • Catholics
    Yes 56%
    No 35


    Even the Pope has come under fire for his handling of the sexual molestations. 69% think he should have done more about the situation than he has done, while 17% think he has done enough. Even a majority of Catholics think the Pope should have done more.

    POPE JOHN PAUL'S HANDLING OF THE SITUATION

  • All
    Done enough 17%
    Should have done more 69

  • Catholics
    Done enough 29%
    Should have done more 60

    Few Americans believe the Pope was unaware of the situation. 61% think the Pope probably knew about this problem all along, while 25% think he only just found out about it.

    DID THE POPE KNOW ABOUT THESE PROBLEMS?
  • All
    Yes 61%
    No 25

  • Catholics
    Yes 56%
    No 30

    Among Catholics, nearly as many - 56% - think the Pope knew all along, while 30% think he just found out about the molestations.

    Nevertheless, the current problem has not greatly affected overall views of Pope John Paul the Second. In this poll, 37% have a favorable view of him and 15% have an unfavorable view, much the same as in previous polls.

    VIEWS OF POPE JOHN PAUL THE SECOND
  • Now
    Favorable 37%
    Unfavorable 15
    No opinion 46

  • 9/95
    Favorable 38%
    Unfavorable 8
    No opinion 51

  • 8/87
    Favorable 34%
    Unfavorable 8
    No opinion 56

    But Catholics and non-Catholics give the Pope mixed reviews on his leadership. Among Catholics, 43% think that overall the leadership of Pope John Paul the Second has helped the Church, and 45% say his leadership has had a mixed impact. 6% think he has hurt the Church. In 1995, a majority of Catholics said John Paul II's leadership had helped the Church.

    HOW WIDESPREAD IS IT?

    Despite the criticism of Church leadership, the public so far has not indicted the entire Catholic religion. Most Americans -- Catholics and non-Catholics -- believe this behavior is limited to relatively few priests, and that these problems exist in other professions as well.

    Although new charges of molestations continue to come to light, 50% of Americans think this behavior is limited to just a few priests. 23% think hardly any priests have sexually abused children. 17% say many priests have. Women are slightly more suspicious than men.

    HOW MANY PRIESTS DO THIS?
  • All
    Many 17%
    A few 50
    Hardly any 23

  • Catholics
    Many 10%
    A few 51
    Hardly any 33

    And most of the public sees this as a problem that exists throughout society, not just in the Catholic Church. 23% believe it is a more serious problem in the Catholic Church than it is in other professions, but 70% think it is just as much a problem in other walks of life. Catholics are even more likely to look at it as a global problem.

    IS PEDOPHILIA...
  • All
    More serious problem in Catholic Church 23%
    Problem in other walks of life 70

  • Catholics
    More serious problem in Catholic Church 13%
    Problem in other walks of life 81


    Few Americans have any direct contact with either a perpetrator or a victim of these crimes. 3% know a priest who has committed such crimes (7% among Catholics). 4% personally know someone who has been molested by a priest (5% among Catholics).

    Nearly half the public - including a third of Catholics - think that one of the requirements of priesthood in the Catholic Church, celibacy, contributes to the behavior of these priests. 47% of Americans (35% of Catholics) think this requirement has increased the likelihood that priests will commit child sex abuse. But nearly as many, 45%, think decreased it or has had no impact.

    DOES CELIBACY REQUIREMENT AFFECT CHILD SEX ABUSE?
  • All
    Yes, increases it 47%
    Yes, decreases it 3
    Has no impact 42

  • Catholics
    Yes, increases it 35%
    Yes, decreases it 3
    Has no impact 55

    Among Catholics, 35% think the celibacy requirement contributes to this behavior, while 53% think it does not. There is a gender gap on this, however. 44% of Catholic men believe celibacy increases the likelihood of child sex abuse. Just 27% of Catholic women think so.

    THE SCANDAL AND CATHOLICS

    Americans Catholics view reports of child sex abuse by priests as the most important problem facing their Church today. But it has not led them to question their Catholic faith, or to view most priests negatively. Most are still attending Mass as often as they ever did, and most report the scandals have not affected their willingness to give money to the Church.

    Six in ten Catholics cite sex abuse by priests and the cover-up of the abuse as the most important problem facing the Catholic Church today. This is a dramatic increase from April 1994, when just 9% of Catholics said sex abuse by Catholic priests was the church's most important problem. Following the sex abuse allegations are the issue of celibacy of priests (5%) and the shortage of priests and (3%).

    MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEM FACING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
  • Catholics
    Sex abuse by priest/cover-up 61%
    Celibacy of priests 5
    Shortage of priests and nuns 3

  • April 1994
    Sex abuse by priest/cover-up 9%
    Celibacy of priests 3
    Shortage of priests and nuns 8

    Non-Catholics think these scandals are shaking the faith of Catholics; 57% think Catholics are now questioning their own religious faith as a result. The findings in this poll demonstrate that this assumption is far from true. Only 11% of current Catholics say recent charges against Catholic priests involving child sex abuse have led them to question their faith. Nine in 10 (89%) say the recent charges have not done so.

    REPORTS OF SEX ABUSE BY PRIESTS LED YOU TO
    QUESTION YOUR FAITH?


    Catholics
    Yes 11%
    No 89

    What the recent sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups have done is to lead many Catholics to question the Church's hierarchy. 48% say recent charges of sexual abuse by Catholic priests have led them to question the authority of Church leaders, while 48% say they have not.

    REPORTS OF SEX ABUSE BY PRIESTS LED YOU TO
    QUESTION AUTHORITY OF CHURCH LEADERS?


    Catholics
    Yes 48%
    No 48

    Even many who consider themselves strong Catholics are questioning the authority of Catholic Church leaders. 45% of strong Catholics say recent events have led them to question the authority of church's leaders, while 49% say this hasn't happened.

    THE PRIESTS CATHOLICS KNOW

    Despite the scandals, most Catholics view the priesthood as an honorable calling, and they continue to trust their own priests. 65% of Catholics say they are personally very or somewhat likely to discuss a serious problem with a priest.

    Two-thirds of Catholics say they would be comfortable if their child was alone with their parish priest. And more than three-quarters say that if one of their children wanted to become a priest or nun they would encourage him or her to do so.

    WOULD YOU BE COMFORTABLE IF YOUR CHILD
    WAS ALONE WITH YOUR PRIEST?


    Catholics
    Yes 67%
    No 25

    But one in four Catholics says they would be uncomfortable if their child were alone with a priest (with Catholic parents of boys even more concerned - 34% of them would be uncomfortable). 32% of Catholics are unlikely to discuss a serious personal problem with a priest.

    The recent child sex abuse scandal has not prompted Catholics to stop giving to the Catholic Church. Just 13% say they are less likely to give money to the Catholic Church. 85% say recent allegations have had no effect on their likelihood to give money to the Catholic Church.

    LESS LIKELY TO GIVE MONEY TO CATHOLIC CHURCH
    Catholics
    Less likely 13%
    No effect 85

    Recent reports of sex abuse by priests have also not stopped Catholics from attending Mass. 84% of Catholics say that in the past month they have attended Mass about the same as they usually do. 6% say they've gone to Mass less often, while 9% say they've attended more often.

    The scandals are being talked about in many Catholic parishes: 42% of Catholics who have attended Mass in the past month say priests have made statements about the recent charges. Still, more than half (57%) say priests have not made any statements on the subject.

    HAVE PRIESTS MADE ANY STATEMENTS ABOUT RECENT
    CHARGES AT MASS?

    Catholic Mass-goers
    Yes 42%
    No 57

    Interestingly, of those who said priests haven't talked about the recent charges, 53% agree with this lack of discussion and do not think the priests should have said anything. 42%, however, think priests should have communicated with church members about the recent child sex abuse charges.

    Whatever has happened at Mass, most Catholics are talking about the issue with other Catholics. 56% admit they have discussed the recent charges with other Catholics. 67% of parents with boys have.

    IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH OUT OF TOUCH?

    Today, just as many Catholics say the Church is out of touch with their needs than said so back in 1995. Nearly half of Catholics say the Catholic Church is out of touch with their needs today. Nearly the same number of American Catholics felt this way back in September 1995.

    IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN TOUCH WITH CATHOLICS TODAY?
  • Now
    Yes 47%
    No 48

  • Sept 1995
    Yes 47%
    No 47

    However, in the same period there has been an increase in opposition to the mandatory celibacy of Catholic priests. Now, seven in ten Catholics favor Catholic priests being allowed to marry; only 20% are opposed to the idea. In September 1995, 58% of Catholics favored priests being allowed to marry.


    DO YOU FAVOR OR OPPOSE LETTING PRIESTS GET MARRIED?
  • Now
    Favor 71%
    Oppose 20

  • Sept 1995
    Favor 58%
    Oppose 34

    63% of Catholics favor the idea of women being ordained as Catholic priests, while 29% oppose women becoming priests. Majorities of both Catholic men and women favor the idea of women being ordained as priests.

    WHO'S LEFT THE CHURCH?

    At the extreme, dissatisfaction with the Church can lead to separation from it. And those who were raised Catholic but no longer consider themselves so have much more negative views on than do current Catholics.

    Former Catholics are more likely to think the Church has handled the child sex abuse scandal poorly (77%, compared to 69% of Catholics), and to say the scandals have caused their view of the Catholic Church to become more negative (50%, compared to 29% of current Catholics). These former Catholics are also more likely than current Catholics to believe that celibacy has caused priests to commit child sex abuse (50% vs. 35%).

    Finally, former Catholics attribute more blame to Pope John Paul than current Catholics do; 65% say he knew all along about the problem (56% of Catholics concur), and 78% think he should have done more about it (60% of current Catholics say the same).

    CURRENT VS. FORMER CATHOLICS
  • Current Catholics
    Think church handled scandal poorly 69%
    Think celibacy causes sex abuse 35%
    Pope John Paul should have done more 60%
    Church is out of touch 48%

  • Former Catholics
    Think church handled scandal poorly 77%
    Think celibacy causes sex abuse 50%
    Pope John Paul should have done more 78%
    Church is out of touch 74%

    Members of this group strongly feel the Catholic Church is out of touch. 74% feel this way while only 11% feel the church is in touch with Catholics' needs.

    THE IMPACT ON THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

    Many believe the Catholic Church has been hurt by the recent reports of child sex abuse. More than eight in ten Catholics are worried that reports of priests sexually abusing children have hurt the church, including 43% who say they are very worried. 17% are not at all worried that such reports have hurt the Catholic Church.


    WORRIED REPORTS OF SEX ABUSE HAVE HURT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?
    Catholics
    Very 43%
    Somewhat 40
    Not at all 17

    But the long-term impact of these scandals on views of the Catholic Church may not be too severe. A majority of Catholics and 49% non-Catholics say the scandals have not affected how they view the Church.

    However, among those who say the scandals have had an effect, the effect is damaging. 41% of Americans overall say the charges of sexual abuse have caused their opinion of the Church to become more negative; only 1% says the scandals have caused them to see the Church in a more positive light.

    IMPACT OF SCANDALS ON VIEWS OF CATHOLIC CHURCH
  • All
    More positively 1%
    More negatively 41
    No impact 52

  • Catholics
    More positively 2%
    More negatively 29
    No impact 66

    While fewer Catholics say the scandals have damaged their assessment of their Church, but nearly a third of them now see their Church more negatively than they did before the sexual abuse came to light.

    The impact now is more negative than it was in 1994, when similar charges against priests were made. Then, 62% overall said the accusations did not affect their view of the Church. 28% said it made their view more negative.

    MEDIA COVERAGE

    The media gets some criticism, but not much, for the way it has covered these stories. 25% think the media has spent too much time on stories about child sexual abuse by priests, and 52% think it has spent the right amount of time on these stories. 16% think there has been too little coverage.


    This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1,119 adults, interviewed by telephone April 15-18, 2002. 407 Catholics were included in the sample, and them weighted to reflect their actual proportion of the adult population. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three points for results based on the entire sample, and plus or minus five percentage points for results based on the sample of Catholics.

    For detailed information on how CBS News conducts public opinion surveys, click here.

    • Brian Bernbaum

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