Study Finds US Catholics Angry over Handling of Scandals

The Times-Picayune [United States]
Downloaded November 10, 2004

The sexual abuse scandal is creating a historic shift in relations between U.S. Catholics and their church hierarchy.

In the first comprehensive national study of the effects of the sexual abuse scandal, researchers at Catholic University of America and Purdue University found nearly four of five people in the pews said they were ashamed and embarrassed for their church, and nearly three-quarters said the failure of bishops to stop the abuse is a bigger problem than the abuse itself.

Anger in the pews toward church leaders so far is having little effect on Catholics' commitment to their church, however. Respondents reported only a slight decline in attendance and giving as a result of the scandal; more than four in five report that being Catholic remains very important to them personally.

But what the results indicate is that while the church itself remains intact, the sexual abuse scandal is shaping up to be a seminal moment in how Catholics view the authority of bishops, some observers said.

"The development of lay organizations, such as Voice of the Faithful, demanding accountability and openness to me represents a new day. It's new in my life," said Catholic University sociologist Dean Hoge.

Joseph Kelly, chairman of the religious studies department at John Carroll University, said "it was a shocker" for Catholics to learn that the people they trusted to take care of the sexual abuse crisis were covering it up.

"I think the issue of trust will be around longer than the abuse thing," he said.

Outrage across the board

The study originated last year with a committee of leaders at the University of Notre Dame seeking a benchmark survey of lay Catholics in the United States. Two of the nation's most respected Catholic researchers, Hoge and Purdue University sociologist James Davidson, led the national telephone survey conducted in late 2003 of 1,119 adult Catholics. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Hoge and Davidson gave a preliminary report last month in Kansas City, Mo., at the joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and Religious Research Association, and gave the full Notre Dame report to The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. Many of the findings are scheduled to be published this month in the independent Catholic magazine Commonweal, Hoge said.

More than the priest shortage or any other crisis in the church today, Catholic parishioners said the most serious problems facing the Catholic Church in the United States are the scandal of priests sexually abusing minors and the perceived cover-ups by bishops.

The outrage was across the board, from older conservative Catholics raised before the groundbreaking Second Vatican Council to younger, more liberal Catholics. For example, 86 percent of Catholics 63 and older and 85 percent ages 26 to 62 agreed that clergy sexual abuse of minors was the most serious problem facing the church today. Seventy percent of the youngest Catholics surveyed and 75 percent of the oldest said the bishops' lack of response was the second-most-serious problem in the church.

Among other findings, 72 percent said the failure of bishops to stop the abuse was a bigger problem than the abuse itself, and 62 percent said church leaders are covering up the facts.

Matter of faith

But along with a lot of anger and distrust, Catholics still have a high level of faith in their church, researchers found.

More than four in five respondents said both that the Catholic Church is very important to them and that being Catholic "is a very important part of who I am." More than seven in 10 said they would never leave the Catholic Church.

"The Catholics are Catholic. They're not about to walk away quickly," Hoge said.

Nor are they staging major protests with their feet or their finances, the study found. Eleven percent said the scandal decreased their attendance, but 7 percent said they go more often. In regard to church giving, the vast majority also said it had no effect, with 12 percent saying they gave less and 6 percent reporting the scandal caused them to give more.

However, the study found Catholics want more openness and a greater say in how their church is run.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said the laity should have some say in selecting their parish priest and 77 percent said the Catholic Church needs better financial reporting at all levels.

And when asked who finally calls the shots on moral issues, only a quarter of respondents said Catholics must obey church teachings even if they disagree with them. Sixty-nine percent said they must do what they think is right even when it doesn't agree with church teachings.

Davidson said the teaching authority of the bishops does not appear to be a frame of reference for most Catholics.

"They are probably not waking up in the morning wondering what the bishop is thinking," Davidson said of American Catholics. "They are probably thinking on their own two feet."


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