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Posted July 28, 2004

Survey finds Catholics skeptical
of bishops' handling of sex abuse

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- U.S. Catholics regard the clerical sexual abuse scandal and the bishops' handling of it as two of the most serious problems facing the church, according to a study by two leading sociologists.

They found that most Catholics questioned in a nationwide telephone survey think bishops are covering up the facts about sexual abuse. Older and more active Catholics tended to have more confidence in bishops than did younger Catholics or those less involved in church activities, they reported. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents said the failure of bishops to stop the abuse was a bigger problem than the abuse itself.

Sociologists Dean R. Hoge of The Catholic University of America and James D. Davidson of Purdue University designed the survey, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame as part of a larger initiative to serve clergy and lay leaders in the church. Princeton Survey Research Associates conducted the survey, polling 1,119 self-identified adult Catholics in October 2003. The survey had a 3.5 percent margin of error.

The study explored Catholics' views on church teachings and church authority, their involvement in church activities, their sense of Catholic identity and their views of other religions as well as their responses to the sexual abuse crisis and their perspective on major problems facing the church.

Hoge and Davidson are to report the main results of their study at a Notre Dame symposium on U.S. Catholicism later this year and in a special issue of Commonweal, a national Catholic magazine, which plans to carry several articles on the study this fall.

In July they gave Catholic News Service an advance look at the survey's findings and some of their initial conclusions.

One portion of the survey listed 12 issues facing the church and asked respondents to rank each as a serious problem, somewhat of a problem or not a problem for the church.

Eighty-five percent said the fact that some priests have sexually abused young people was a serious problem and 77 percent said it was a serious problem that some bishops have not done enough to stop priests from such abuse.

By comparison, only 62 percent regarded the shortage of priests and sisters as a serious problem and only 53 percent thought it was a serious problem that young adults are not as involved in the church as they should be.

Less than half ranked any of the other eight issues as serious church problems. These included: Parents don't teach their children the faith as they should, 49 percent; there are too many men with a homosexual orientation in the priesthood, 42 percent; church teachings on sexual morality are out of touch with reality, 40 percent; women are not involved enough in church decision-making, 38 percent.

Only one-fourth to one-third of respondents regarded it as a serious problem that lay people are not consulted enough in forming church moral and social teachings, that laity do not live up to the obligations involved in practicing the faith, that religious education is poor in Catholic parishes and schools, or that clergy no longer hold Catholics accountable to church teachings.

When asked if bishops "are being very open and honest" about the clergy sexual abuse scandal or "are covering up the facts," 62 percent said the bishops were covering up and only 20 percent thought they were being open and honest; 12 percent said they saw a mixture of truth and cover-up.

Noting that suspicion of the bishops was strongest among those who are not registered in a parish and do not regularly attend Mass, Hoge said, "The good news for bishops is that the most loyal Catholics have the most favorable views of their leadership. The bad news is that even among (registered) parishioners and active Catholics, a majority of lay people suspect the bishops are not telling the whole truth about the scandal."

At one point in the survey Catholics were asked to estimate how much they contributed to the church in 2002 and whether they were giving more, less or the same in 2003. At a separate point they were asked whether the clergy abuse scandal influenced them to give the church more support or less support or had no impact on their giving.

On the general question, about 60 percent said they were giving the same in 2003 as they had the previous year, but 30 percent said they were giving less and only 10 percent said they were giving more.

On the scandal's impact, 81 percent said it did not affect their contributions, 12 percent said it led them to give less and 6 percent said it led to giving more.

Davidson told CNS that when those responses were correlated with the amounts people said they gave in 2002, those who gave lower amounts were more likely to say their giving had decreased in 2003 and was negatively impacted by the scandal; those who gave the most in 2002 were "a bit more likely" to say they increased their contributions in 2003.

The researchers found that 41 percent of respondents said they knew their bishop's name.

Among the 61 percent of respondents who said they were registered in a parish, 39 percent said they regularly read their diocesan newspaper and 74 percent said they read their parish bulletin. Davidson, who writes a regular column for diocesan newspapers, said that finding suggests that diocesan newspapers could use today's technology to reach a wider audience by linking with church bulletins -- for example, by providing weekly news inserts.

The researchers divided respondents into four age groups, labeling each generation according to the era in which they came of age: pre-Vatican II for those born in 1940 or before; Vatican II for those born in 1941-60, whose formative years came during or shortly after the Second Vatican Council; post-Vatican II for those born in 1961-77; and millennial for those born from 1978 on. The oldest group was age 63 and up when the survey was conducted in 2003, while the youngest group consisted of people ages 18-25 at that time.

"Core beliefs -- such as Christ's presence in the sacraments and the need to be concerned about the poor -- tend to unite Catholics in all four generations," they said.

"On most other issues," they added, "generational differences are important in the American Catholic community and need to be taken into account by church leaders. ... The biggest gap is between the pre-Vatican II cohort and the others."

One example of that gap was a question about weekly Mass attendance: three-fourths of those 63 and older thought that was essential to the Catholic faith, but only half of those in each of the other age groups held that view.

Similarly, on moral teachings only in the 63-plus group did a majority of respondents say homosexual acts are always wrong (69 percent), abortion is always wrong (55 percent) and premarital sex is always wrong (64 percent). In the three other generations combined, less than one-fourth considered premarital sex always wrong, 35 percent said abortion is always wrong and 39 percent said homosexual acts are always wrong.

"Our survey tells us that tomorrow's Catholics will be more individualistic, more tolerant in the area of sexual morality, less inclined to defer to teachings of the hierarchy, less committed to Catholic institutions and less involved in parish life," they said.

Comparing responses in terms of educational levels, they said, "the more educated Catholics were less concerned (than the others) about church discipline and moral discipline and they were more tolerant of individualism. ... They received Communion more often, were more commonly registered in parishes, more commonly know who their bishop is."