Shaken, Catholics Shunning Church
Poll: Donations Fall Amid Scandals

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer [Cincinnati OH]
August 30, 2003

Backlash from sexual misconduct scandals has rattled local Catholics, causing church attendance on both sides of the Ohio River to plunge and causing parishioners to withhold donations.

And more than half of local Catholics polled say the handling of sex-abuse cases has caused them to lose faith in church leaders, according to an Enquirer/WCPO-TV-sponsored survey.

"People are stunned, they are angry, disappointed. Some people feel betrayed," said the Rev. Ed Rudemiller, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Western Hills. "I don't think there is any doubt that it has affected attendance."

Catholics say the scandals have not only kept them out of church, but have also kept them from giving to church causes.

According to SurveyUSA's poll of 414 local Catholics, 28 percent say their faith has been negatively affected, 26 percent say they are attending Mass less often, and 25 percent are giving less money to the church.

When parents were asked if the church's handling of sex abuse cases would make them less likely to encourage their children to practice Catholicism, 22 percent said it would.

"There are secondary victims to all of this, especially young people," said Mike Knellinger, co-founder of Dayton's Voice of the Faithful group, which targets clergy sexual abuse.

"The church allowed the abuse to go on for so long, young people ask how they can know it's still not going on. How do you answer that?"

But Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, who has fought the church over disclosure of priest abuses and has talked to the victims, said he's never considered walking away from the church and is raising his children Catholic.

"I believe in the Catholic faith. I was baptized, raised Catholic and taught by nuns," he said. "Catholic beliefs are ingrained in me. ... The teachings of the church are things that don't change at every whim."

Attendance drops

Attendance counts at Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Catholic parishes show that fewer people went to Sunday Mass last year, with local churches suffering the largest single-year decline in attendance since 1992.

Cincinnati Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco said the scandals are to blame.

"I don't know of anything else that could account for such a large decline," he said, adding that the Archdiocese has also received angry letters from parishioners who are refusing to donate to diocese funds.

In Northern Kentucky, however, Covington Diocese spokesman Tim Fitzgerald said there was no way to know what caused the drop there.

"We are unable to assign a reason for the decline in attendance," he said. "It's not a large drop. We can't pinpoint the reason it occurred. It could well go up next year."

Once a year, both dioceses conduct what is called the October Count, which tracks attendance at Sunday Mass through the month of October.

Among the 52 parishes in the Covington Diocese, attendance dropped from 35,774 in 2001 to 34,181 last year.

In Cincinnati, attendance dropped from 221,740 in 2001 to 208,217 last year.

Despite the size differences, both dioceses show remarkably similar attendance patterns. Attendance was highest in the early 1990s then steadily declined throughout the decade.

In 1999, attendance rebounded and grew for the next couple of years before the sudden drop last year.

While individual dioceses conduct October counts, national attendance numbers are not available.

Controversy continues

The local drop came as Cincinnati reeled from a continuing series of scandals. The latest unfolded this week when a 96-year-old retired priest admitted molesting at least one boy more than 40 years ago. Last week, the Archdiocese confirmed that David Kelley, a priest who once taught at Elder High School, remained in active ministry despite substantiated allegations of sexual abuse involving a teenager.

Kelley is the fourth former Elder official to be accused of sexual misconduct, including two former principals.

A priest at Our Lady of Visitation in Green Township pleaded no contest this month to soliciting an undercover police officer for sex in a Dayton restroom. The diocese has also seen embezzlement by a church treasurer; a volunteer female coach stalking a boy soccer player; and another volunteer coach fondling girls during a sleepover at his house.

The Vatican this month defrocked the Rev. Louis J. Holtz, a priest from the Diocese of Covington who was accused of sexually abusing a child.

The local scandals have played out against the backdrop of national headlines and news accounts of how the Catholic Church covered up clergy sexual abuse and moved accused priests to new parishes.

Still, for most area Catholics, faith is larger than the church - and they are holding tightly to those beliefs.

"I haven't lost faith in God, just the Catholic Church," said Mary Brown, 55, of Price Hill. "It was angering to me to hear that priests were doing those things and that the church moved them around. It said to me that (church elders) didn't know what to do with deviants. Nobody knew how to handle it."

Brown, who cut ties with the church after it refused to recognize her divorce and second marriage, said the scandals have only reinforced her decision to leave the Cincinnati parishes she was raised in.

She said the behavior by priests is a rude awakening for some parishioners who see the clergy as above fault.

Confidence eroding

National studies show that many Catholics are struggling with the human failings of the church and its leaders.

A Gallup poll this year found that public confidence in organized religion and clergy had dropped to its lowest level in 60 years. In its survey of 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older, only 45 percent said they had a great deal of confidence in organized religion. That is down from 60 percent in 2001.

The approval rating for bishops among U.S. Catholics has also fallen, going from 84 percent in the fall of 2001 to 59 percent last year, according to a LeMoyne College-Zogby International poll.

Mary Gautier, a senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, said a recent survey of Catholics who attend Mass regularly found that 13 percent have stopped giving to diocese-level collections and 18 percent stopped supporting national collections.

"Obviously what has to be done is that trust has to be restored between the (church) leadership and the people," she said.

Father Rudemiller agreed that Cincinnati's recovery will take time and effort. In homilies, he has told his congregation that they have to find a way to work through the anger.

"The difficult thing is finding God in all of that. It is not a pretty thing," he said. "These priests are colleagues of mine. It has been hard to accept. ... Everybody's a victim."

Rudemiller said it will be hard for the church to rebuild trust with its congregations, but it can be done.

"Faith is a very personal thing," he said. "In many ways, faith is always a challenge."

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