Poll Finds Doubts on Abuse Response
Most Say They Believe the Church Places Its Image before Children's Welfare

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
November 16, 2005

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia still has a way to go to restore public confidence in its handling of clergy sex abuse, a new Temple University/Inquirer poll has found.

A majority of adults polled said they believe archdiocesan leaders continue to put the church's reputation ahead of protecting children.

While many of those interviewed said the archdiocese has improved its handling of clergy sex abuse in recent years, 43 percent of Catholics - and 63 percent of non-Catholics - polled said they felt archdiocesan officials are first concerned with the church's reputation when confronted with abuse allegations.

The poll indicated that a significant number of non-Catholics continue to have doubts about Catholic priests and prelates.

For instance, 33 percent of non-Catholics said they thought that "Catholic priests, compared to other men, are more likely to abuse children." That compares with 18 percent of Catholics polled.

Pollsters interviewed 1,135 adults in the five counties - Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery - that make up the archdiocese. The polling was conducted between Oct. 24 and Nov. 6. Of those polled, 361, or about 35 percent, identified themselves as Catholic, although some said they attended Mass only rarely.

The margin of error for the survey as a whole is plus or minus 3 percentage points. It is slightly higher - plus or minus 5 percentage points - for results from Catholics alone.

The survey was designed to assess reaction to the scathing Sept. 21 report of a Philadelphia grand jury, which concluded that archdiocesan officials - including Cardinals John Krol and Anthony J. Bevilacqua - had for decades allowed hundreds of sexual assaults against children to go unpunished, and had shielded the priests who committed the crimes.

Handling of the abuse "was as immoral as the abuse itself," the grand jury declared.

"What's happening is that the archdiocese has not yet persuaded many people that they are taking the appropriate steps to deal with the problem," said Michael G. Hagen, director of the Institute for Public Affairs at Temple, which conducted the poll.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, who is in Washington for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, did not see the poll data and was unavailable for an interview yesterday. However, he told Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the archdiocese: "As I carry out my parish visits, I consistently hear two messages from the people of the archdiocese: 'We do need to move forward and continually use all means possible to keep young people safe now and in the future.' "

Farrell said that while she had not had viewed the poll data in detail, it "essentially confirms a lot of what we're hearing and seeing; we know people are troubled."

But she challenged the idea that the archdiocese cares more about its image than about children.

"That's not the case," she said, "but it reflects our belief and Cardinal Rigali's that we're not getting word out about all the changes we've made."

She said the archdiocese now reports all abuse allegations to police and does not keep any priest in the ministry who abuses a child.

On Monday, the archdiocese announced it had restricted the ministry of 86-year-old Msgr. Charles J. Schaeflein, the retired former pastor of St. Andrew parish in Newtown, while it investigates allegations he had abused a minor years ago.

It also announced that it had sought and received resignation last week of the Rev. Mr. Charles Ginn Jr., a teacher at St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia, in light of allegations that he had kissed and hugged three students in 1996. After those alleged incidents, Ginn was ordained a deacon, able to conduct weddings, baptisms and funerals.

Among the poll's highlights:

Seventy-two percent of all those surveyed said they did not approve of "the way the archdiocese has handled the issue" of abusive priests. Of these, 40 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of non-Catholics described themselves as "very dissatisfied."

High-income Catholics - those with household incomes of $75,000 or more - are significantly more dissatisfied with the archdiocese's handling of abuse than those in households earning less than $30,000.

Younger Catholics described themselves as less upset by the abuse scandal than middle-aged and senior Catholics. Eighty-one percent of those ages 50 to 65 described themselves as "dissatisfied" with the church's handling of abuse cases; 59 percent of those between 18 and 35 felt that way.

Nearly three-quarters of all those polled believe Pennsylvania's statute of limitations should be revised to allow adults abused as children more time to file charges against their abusers. The grand jury had urged such a change.

More than eight out of 10 said bishops or cardinals should be removed from office if they knowingly reassigned an abuser priest without notifying police. Nearly 77 percent of Catholics and 87 percent of non-Catholics agreed.

Despite the grand jury's harsh criticism of Bevilacqua and Krol, only about 29 percent of Catholics and 24 percent of non-Catholics harbor "unfavorable" views of the two former archbishops.

Catholics with favorable views of Rigali outnumber by three to one those with unfavorable views.

Three-quarters of Catholics and non-Catholics alike said they thought the grand jury report was fair, in marked contrast to an archdiocesan lawyer's charge at a Sept. 21 news conference that it was "vile" and "anti-Catholic."

A Downingtown woman interviewed for the poll said she was among those who believed the archdiocese still puts its reputation first. "I do not believe they have improved the way they do business," said the woman, who gave her name only as Joyce.

A non-Catholic, she said the "Catholic Church acts almost as if it were its own country - that it doesn't have to participate in our rules."

Scott Thomas, a Delaware County software consultant who also was interviewed for the poll, said he thought the "bureaucracy" of the archdiocese was "still very closed, particularly with the priest scandal."

But Thomas, 44, who described himself as a "very traditional Catholic," blamed the abuse problem on homosexual priests, whom he called "the root of the cause."