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Catholic Americans give pope poor marks on handling of sex abuse scandal - CBS News poll

Sex abuse left off agenda for Vatican meeting

Most Catholic Americans think the Pope and the Vatican are doing a poor job handling recent reports of child sexual abuse by priests, and about a quarter of Catholics say those reports have made them question whether they should remain in the Church. Favorable views of Pope Francis have dropped sharply among Catholics in the last two years.

Seven in 10 Catholic Americans think that child sex abuse by priests is a very serious problem, and just 29 percent of think the Pope and the Vatican are doing a good job handling the matter, a marked decline from just before his first visit to the U.S. three years ago.  Back in 2015, nearly half of Catholics said he and the Vatican were doing a good job handling this issue.

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As a result of the reports of past sexual abuse of children by priests, more Catholics are now questioning their participation in the Catholic Church. Now a quarter of Catholics say the abuse reports have made them personally question whether they would remain in the Church. Just 9 percent said this in 2010 amid reports that had surfaced back then.

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While 20 percent of Catholics age 45 and over have questioned remaining in the Church, this rises to 35 percent of Catholics between the ages of 18 and 44. Those who attend mass at least weekly tend to be more firm about remaining in the Church than those who go to mass less often.

Twenty-two percent of Catholics say they are now less likely to attend mass because of the reports of child sexual abuse. Today 38 percent of Catholics say they attend mass at least once a week, similar to what was reported in 2015 (34 percent), but a smaller percentage than the 45 percent who reported doing so when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down in 2013.

Catholics who attend mass tend to be older. Just one in four Catholics under the age of 45 attend mass at least once a week, compared to nearly half of Catholics age 45 and older.

Two-thirds of Catholics have at least some confidence that the Vatican can prevent future cases of child sex abuse by priests, although only a quarter have a lot of confidence. Catholics who attend mass regularly tend to have more confidence in the Vatican.

Just 43 percent of Catholic Americans think the Catholic Church is in touch with the needs of Catholics today; 51 percent think the Church is out of touch. These percentages have been fairly consistent over the past thirty years, though they represent a change from three years ago. In September 2015 - right before Pope Francis' first visit to the United States - most Catholic Americans said that the Church was in touch with the needs of Catholics.

Many Catholics think change is needed to keep the next generation of Catholics from straying from the flock. Fifty-five percent think the Church should change some of its beliefs and practices to help keep young people in the Church, though most who attend mass regularly think that the Church should keep its beliefs and practices the same.

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Specifically, most Catholic Americans of all ages approve of letting Catholic priests get married (68 percent) and allowing women to be ordained as priests (64 percent) – positions that have been popular for many years. Even those who attend mass regularly favor allowing priests to marry, though they are a little less enthusiastic about allowing women to become priests.

Two in three Catholic Americans think celibacy plays at least some part in contributing to child sexual abuse by priests (though just a third say it is a major factor). Those who advocate allowing priests to marry and allowing women to become priests are particularly likely to think it plays a role.

Views of Pope Francis

Pope Francis continues to be viewed more positively than negatively by Catholic Americans, but favorable opinions have dropped from 63 percent in 2016 to 48 percent today.

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How the Pope Francis is handling the sex abuse scandal may be a factor in how he is being perceived.  Sixty-two percent of Catholics who think the Pope is doing a good job handling the abuse allegations view the Pope favorably, but this drops to 39 percent of those who think he is doing a poor job.

Pope Francis is more popular with older Catholics and those who attend mass regularly, while many younger Catholics and those who attend mass less often are undecided about him.


This poll was conducted by telephone September 29-October 2, 2018 among a random sample of 1,103 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News by SSRS of Media, PA.  Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones.

The poll employed a random digit dial methodology. For the landline sample, a respondent was randomly selected from all adults in the household. For the cell sample, interviews were conducted with the person who answered the phone.

An oversample of Catholics was interviewed for a total of 433 interviews with Catholic respondents. The results were then weighted in proportion to the adult population. The margin of error for the sample of Catholics is plus or minus 6 points.

Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish using live interviewers.  The data have been weighted to reflect U.S. Census figures on demographic variables.

The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher and is available by request. The margin of error includes the effects of standard weighting procedures which enlarge sampling error slightly.

This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

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