Survey: Abuse Scandals Mean Fewer in the Pews, Less in Donations

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by David Nussman  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 12, 2019   

Pew Research Center survey shows many Catholics skipped Mass, donated less, in response to clerical sex abuse crisis

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - According to a new survey, the Catholic clerical sex abuse crisis is causing many self-identified Catholics to distance themselves from the Church.

Statistics from the Pew Research Center published Tuesday indicate that 27% of U.S. Catholics admit to attending Sunday Mass less frequently due to reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by members of the clergy. Among respondents who had previously attended Mass at least weekly, 15% began attending less frequently due to clerical abuse scandals.

The survey also found that 26% of Catholics are donating less to their parish and diocese as a result of clergy sex abuse scandals. Among Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, 20% scaled back on their donations; among Catholics who do not attend every Sunday, it was 28%.

Pew Research Center's survey also asked U.S. Catholics for their thoughts on how Church leaders have handled the abuse crisis. Fifty-five percent of Catholics said Pope Francis has done a good or excellent job, while fewer respondents (49%) approved of how their local bishop handled it. But only 36% of Catholics approved of the way the U.S. bishops in general have dealt with the scandals.

Among U.S. adults, only 12% answered that sexual abuse and misconduct by priests and bishops are things of the past, with 79% believing it is an ongoing problem.

Catholics were twice as likely (24%) as their peers to believe that clerical abuse scandals are just things from the past. But even then, more than two-thirds of Catholics (69%) think clerical sex abuse scandals are an ongoing problem for the Church.

This stands in contrast with the responses of some American bishops who responded to last year's "Summer of Shame" by arguing that clerical sex abuse and cover-ups by bishops were a thing of the past.

For instance, about a week before the release of the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report, Cdl. Donald Wuerl said during an interview with Fr. Thomas Rosica, "Right now, when you hear of abuse, when you hear of a case of abuse, they're talking about things that happened decades ago, for the most part. I don't think this is some massive, massive crisis. It was a terrible disappointment."

In the recent survey, respondents were asked whether sexual abuse is more common among Catholic clergy than among religious leaders in other sects. Nearly half (48%) of U.S. adults said they believe sex abuse is more common with Catholic clergy, with a similar percentage (47%) saying it is equally as common. Just 3% said sexual abuse is less common among Catholic clergy than other religious leaders.

In contrast, only one-third of Catholics (33%) stated that sex abuse is more common among Catholic priests and bishops, with 61% saying it is equally as common in other religions. Just 4% responded that sex abuse by Catholic clergy is less common than abuse by religious leaders in other sects.

The study found that Catholics are more likely than members of other religions to hear a message from the pulpit expressing support for victims of sexual abuse.

Furthermore, about six in 10 Mass-attending Catholics (58%) in the survey said they had discussed reports of clerical sex abuse with loved ones or acquaintances either "a lot" or "some." Self-identified Catholics who skip Sunday Mass were much less likely to talk about priest sex abuse scandals, with only 42% responding that they have discussed it either "a lot" or "some."

Pew Research Center conducted the nationally representative online survey from March 18 to April 1, with 6,364 American adults participating.

Following the revelations in June last year about the now-laicized Theodore McCarrick, and the hundreds of clerical abuse allegations contained in the Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August, many U.S. Catholics spoke of cutting off their donations to the diocese.

Some even suggested cutting off donations to the parish as well, noting that the diocese typically gets a certain percentage of the money in the donation baskets. But others, noting the obligation of Catholics to support their parish, have suggested alternate ways to give money to the parish that will not be taxed by the diocese. 

One initiative, called Not 1 Dime, recommended that faithful in the pews save up their usual donation money until the local diocese takes action to ensure sexually abusive priests are brought to justice.

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