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Study Sees Church Rebounding from Scandal

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
May 18, 2006

A new study has found that the scandal over sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has not caused American Catholics to leave the church, or to stop attending Mass and donating to their parishes.

The study shows that Catholic participation in church life and satisfaction with church leadership dropped noticeably at the height of the scandal in 2002, but has now largely rebounded to prescandal levels.

The only significant decline is in the percentage of Catholics who contributed to diocesan financial appeals, annual campaigns that are usually run by bishops. While the percentage of Catholics who contributed to their local parishes remained steady, those who gave to diocesan appeals dropped to 29 percent in 2005 from 38 percent in April 2002.

''There's been an expectation that there would be more Catholics exiting the faith, and clearly the polls show that there wasn't any evidence of that,'' said Mark M. Gray, research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which conducted the study.

''It's a reflection of how resilient religious faith can be -- that Catholics were able to disconnect their own personal faith from what was occurring among a group of clergy at a specific time in history,'' Dr. Gray said. ''Their faith was bigger than these events. Clearly there was a lot of dissatisfaction, but people remain Catholic.''

The center based the study on 10 national telephone polls of adult Catholics conducted since January 2001. Most included 1,000 or more respondents, but since the number of people polled varied each time, the margin of sampling error varied from plus or minus 2.1 percentage points to plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

The sexual abuse crisis, which first erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston in early 2002, eventually spread to nearly every diocese in the nation as accusers stepped forward and said priests had molested them as children and young adults. American bishops sent a delegation to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II and instituted new rules for removing accused priests from the ministry. A report commissioned by the church found that from 1950 to 2004, more than 9,000 young people were victimized.

But the new study found that many Catholics knew little about the scope of the scandal, and that the percentage who said that they had heard about the bishops' responses to the scandal dropped to 40 percent in 2005 from a peak of 53 percent in 2004.

''They are just not very well informed of what is really happening,'' said John Moynihan, communications director for Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic reform group born in the scandal's wake.

The percentage of adult Americans who identify themselves as Catholic has remained steady at 23 percent, the study found. The percentage of Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week also held steady from September 2000 to September 2005 at 33 percent, with a slight rise to 39 percent immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to the center's polls.

Donations at the parish level also held steady. Seventy-six percent of Catholics said in April 2002 that they had contributed to their parish collection in the previous year, compared with 74 percent in October 2005.

''This really confirms what we've heard as well,'' said Dr. Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities. ''People are very strongly supportive of their own parish life, but contributions to national collections have dipped.''

Some dioceses are now struggling financially, Dr. Butler said, including Boston; Cincinnati; Spokane, Wash.; Savannah, Ga.; Burlington, Vt.; San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; Gary, Ind.; and Springfield, Mass.

Paul Baier, co-director of bishopaccountability.org, said he had learned that Catholics had ''compartmentalized their faith.''

''Their belief in their pastor is not shaken,'' Mr. Baier said, ''but they find a lack of moral authority in the bishops.''

The study found that three-fourths of Catholics say the sexual abuse issue has hurt the credibility of church leaders who speak out on social or political issues. However, it also found that 74 percent of Catholics are ''somewhat'' or ''very'' satisfied with the leadership of American bishops, an increase from 68 percent in April 2002, when the question was first asked, as the scandal was escalating.

Even more said they were satisfied with their own bishop's leadership (81 percent in April 2002, and 85 percent in October 2005).

Robert Wuthnow, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, said he was surprised at the study's findings.

''At the popular level of casual conversations, there's always this assumption that the Catholic Church is not doing well because of the scandal, and people are wringing their hands,'' Dr. Wuthnow said. ''So this evidence is really important.''

 
 

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