The sexual abuse scandal that dogged the Roman Catholic Church throughout 2002 has driven public confidence in organized religion overall to its lowest level in six decades, a new poll by George H. Gallup Jr. has found.
Only 45% of Americans had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized religion in 2002, compared with 60% who did so in 2001 before the sexual abuse scandal erupted. When it comes to the ethical standards of clergy, only 52% of Americans gave clergy a very high or high rating in 2002, compared with 64% who did so in 2001. The poll reported a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
"It's a major body blow to the [Roman Catholic] church," Gallup said in an interview.
The good news for organized religion, Gallup said, is that he believes Protestant churches have experienced little or no loss in public confidence, even though the Catholic polling numbers dragged down the overall confidence index for religious groups.
"This is strictly a Catholic phenomenon. There's very little rub-off or collateral damage done to the Protestants," Gallup said.
This year's poll compared Protestant and Catholic attitudes, but past polls have not, so Gallup's view is admittedly speculative, but his belief is shared by other researchers.
Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, for example, is undertaking its own poll this week to determine how satisfied Catholics are with their church. "It's very likely things have changed [for the worse] during the last year," said Paul Perl, a research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based center, one of the country's leading Catholic research organizations.
During 2001, the center found that 40% of Catholics were very satisfied with their church, 40% somewhat satisfied, 13% somewhat dissatisfied, and 4% very dissatisfied. Two percent had no opinion.
But the resignation or dismissal of more than 325 priests from their ministries following allegations that they had sexually abused minors almost certainly has driven down those ratings, researchers believe. The scandal has also led to five U.S. bishops being accused of cover-ups and resigning their posts, the most prominent among them Cardinal Bernard Law, who quit as archbishop of Boston.
The scandal is continuing, with hundreds of civil lawsuits expected to be filed this year in California alone. If incriminating personnel files on priests and other church records surface in connection with those suits, other bishops are likely to be pressured to resign, attorneys for victims and leaders of survivors support groups have said.
That is one reason Catholic bishops in California are holding informal discussions with victims' attorneys about entering into a court-supervised mediation, which could spare the church the embarrassment of a public trial. In addition, bishops say they do not want to "re-victimize" those who have been abused by seeing them subjected to pretrial depositions and called as trial witnesses.
Gallup said it will not be easy for the Catholic Church to rebuild its credibility, despite steps it took last year. Those moves included well-publicized national safeguards put in place by U.S. bishops in November and the appointment of rank-and-file Catholics to national and local sexual abuse review committees.
"This is not going to be a quick-recovery kind of thing," Gallup said. He speculated that greater involvement by the laity in decision-making within the church could help.
Among Catholics, only 42% said they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the church in 2002, Gallup's figures showed. Among Protestants, 59% said they had confidence in organized religion in 2002.
Gallup said he believes that "confidence in organized religion remained basically stable among Protestants."
The poll also found that the sexual abuse scandal has probably hurt the Catholic Church's finances. Last March, about three months after the scandal broke in Boston, 30% of Catholics said they were less likely to put money in the offering plate. By December, the percentage had jumped to 40%.
Confidence in organized religion and the ethical standards of clergy are among eight items the Gallup organization uses to measure Americans' attitudes toward religion. The other six showed little change from the previous year. They are: belief in God, willingness to state a religious preference, membership in a church, weekly church attendance, a belief that religion is very important in life, and a belief that religion answers problems.
According to Gallup's report on the poll, "the two specific items driving the index's drop clearly speak to the impact of the sex abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church."
Gallup said he will be looking for others signs of disenchantment this year by tracking church attendance, affiliation with the Catholic Church and religious preferences. "That would be the final measurement of disillusionment if they started to drift away from affiliations," Gallup said of Catholics.
Attendance at Catholic churches had fallen before the latest sexual abuse scandal erupted. Perl, citing data from the General Social Survey poll by the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center, said that, in 1972, 55% of Catholics reported attending Mass every week. By 2000, that figure had dropped to 30%, according to the survey.
Perl said that in 2001, 40% of Catholics polled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported attending Mass each week. He said, however, the figure is not entirely credible. A more realistic proportion, he said, would probably be around 20% "when you go out into the pews and count heads."
"We find many young people want to play a greater role," Gallup said.
He said it will be especially important for churches to incorporate what he called "upscale younger people ... well informed, educated, young and vigorous. It's clear they want a bigger role, both Protestants and Catholics. That should open the doors to wider lay involvement to the extent that they can."