Poll Analysis: Priests Say Catholic Church Facing Biggest Crisis of the Century

Times Poll Assoc. Director

Most priests and members of religious orders believe the Catholic Church is currently facing the biggest crisis of this century, according to the latest Los Angeles Times poll. The survey of 1,854 priests and religious in 80 dioceses across the United States and Puerto Rico reveals a clergy who are happy in their chosen life, but who feel embattled by a barrage of negative media attention. Many also expressed concern over the Church hierarchy’s handling of the crisis, and some fear loss of credibility and possible witch-hunts as more allegations -- some decades old -- come to light.

The survey uncovered a religious community whose members are satisfied with their own lives and ministries, but who are at the same time concerned over internal and external stresses on the Church itself. Even though about seven in 10 agreed with the statement “The Catholic Church in America is now facing its biggest crisis in the last century” priests in the survey were generally upbeat about their lives. Nine in 10 said they are very (70%) or somewhat (21%) satisfied with the way their life as a priest is going these days. Six in 10 said their life in the priesthood has turned out better than they thought it would and more than seven in 10 said they would definitely make the same choice again, along with another two in 10 who would probably do so.

Allegations of Abuse and The Bishops’ Conference

The survey contacted priests in the weeks following the yearly conference of Roman Catholic Bishops in the United States. During this conference in June 2002, which took place in a heightened atmosphere of crisis and was extensively covered by the media, the bishops drafted a set of guidelines for dealing with priests who are accused of sexual misconduct. The zero tolerance guidelines set forth in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People require bishops to report allegations of child sexual abuse to civil authorities and remove accused priests from public ministry. Because bishops are heads of their local dioceses and cannot be sanctioned by other bishops, the guidelines do not address the issues of discipline of bishops who are involved in misconduct themselves or who cover up for priests who are accused of misconduct.


Generally speaking, while priests approve of and trust the bishops who head their own dioceses -- three out of four said they approved (39% approved strongly and 37% somewhat) of the way the bishop in their own diocese is handling his duties overall -- two-thirds disapprove of the way bishops in general have handled the allegations of child sexual abuse against priests.

There is also a sense among priests that the problems are happening elsewhere, outside their home dioceses. Eight in 10 overall said they were satisfied that adequate procedures had already been established in their own diocese for dealing with the issue of child sexual abuse by priests even before the Bishop’s conference last June.

When asked to name what bothered them the most about the crisis, priests mentioned the bishops’ response to the crisis most often at 21%. (Next highest mention was concern about unsubstantiated claims of abuse at 16%, followed by the media response to the crisis at 14%.)

While this shows that some are clearly worried about unsubstantiated claims, a majority (60%) indicated they believe that most (19%) or many (42%) of the allegations of sexual misconduct that have been leveled at priests are true, and over half (53%) said they think the Church has been too lenient in disciplining priests who are accused of misconduct. (Thirteen percent feel the Church has been too harsh, and 26% say the level of discipline has been just right.)

Not surprisingly, a priest’s religious leanings play a role in his perception of how the crisis is being handled. Generally speaking, priests who identify as liberal (i.e. non-orthodox) on the religious ideological spectrum tend to feel more strongly about the lack of protection of accused priests by their bishops, but also to be more inclined to believe that the bulk of the allegations against priests are true. Also, they are less satisfied with the guidelines set forth in the Bishops conference last June, and more willing to advocate that bishops resign if they are found to have covered up for abusing priests than are their more conservative brethren.

When priests were asked about the greatest challenges they face in their life and work, issues surrounding the scandal were not immediately foremost in their minds, but that is not to say that concerns are not there. Priests most often mentioned the need to combat secularism and materialism in the laity (12%), the problems of burnout from excessive demands on their time (15%), and the issues of effective ministry (10%). However, aggregating mentions of related issues -- media attacks on the Church, the problems laity and clergy are having in the wake of the abuse scandals, and concern over lost credibility -- reveals that just under two in 10 priests expressed concern about one or more of those issues.


Many priests indicated in their written comments at the end of the survey that they feel that the Church and especially the clergy have been portrayed unfairly by the media, who they feel do not understand the life that priests lead. Nearly three in four said they think the news media’s treatment of the Church is too negative.

Satisfaction With the Bishop’s Charter

When priests were asked to rate the guidelines set forth in the Charter, two-thirds said they were at least somewhat satisfied that it adequately addresses the issues dealing with sexual abuse by priests but 25% said they were not. Six percent said they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. The largest proportion said they were “mostly” (33%) or “somewhat” (26%) satisfied that it addressed the issues.

When asked to rate the Charter on a variety of specifics, priests expressed the greatest satisfaction with the way the compact set about protecting minors. Three out of four priests said it does at least a good job of protecting minors from sexual abuse. Over half (55%) gave the Charter an excellent or good rating for its ability to help restore confidence in the Catholic Church. However, when it comes to being fair to those who are accused of abuse, only 34% of priests said it did a good job and 65% said it did only a fair or poor job when it comes to providing for the discipline of bishops who cover up for abusive priests.

Priests rate how well the Bishop’s compact will:

Excellent/ Fair/

Good Neutral Poor

Protect minors from sex abuse 75% 8 12Restore confidence in the Church 55% 17 24Treat accused priests fairly 34% 16 45Provide discipline for bishops whocover up for abusive priests 15% 13 65

When asked what outcome they would most like to see if a bishop is found to have protected a priest who has sexually abused a minor, only 11% said they thought that the bishop should be arrested, and hardly anyone suggested the bishop should not apologize (1%). Most (75%) agreed that a bishop in that position should apologize and impose new safeguards. That group includes 34% who said that the bishop should take those steps and then continue to serve, and 41% who said the bishop should take those steps and then resign. Thirteen percent did not answer the question.


Generally speaking, priests reported good relations with their diocesan bishops. Along with the majority who approve of the job their bishop is doing, nearly three out of four (73%) consider their bishop’s view on moral issues to be just about right. Nearly two out of five liberal religious priests find the views of their diocesan bishops to be too conservative and 55% find his views on par with theirs. Conversely, more than four out of five each of moderate and conservative religious priests find their bishops’ views in line with their own thinking. More than two-thirds also feel comfortable in going to their superiors for guidance and comfort. But, 37% of liberal religious say they feel uncomfortable, as do 37% of priests who came of age in the Vatican II era. (This result is comparable to Catholics’ in a survey sponsored by ABC News/Washington Post in March 2002. More than three-quarters of Catholic Americans are satisfied with leadership provided by their bishop and 86% are satisfied with their parish priests.)

On another matter that may have more to do with the problems now confronting the Church, priests are divided as to whether they favor or oppose direct democratic election of diocesan bishops by the diocesan clergy and laity. However, priests who are liberal in their religious ideology overwhelmingly approve of this issue (73%), while virtually a similar group of religious conservative priests are as adamantly opposed to the idea. Those saying they are religious moderates are more prone to be against this idea (52% oppose to 44% in favor). Not surprisingly, priests who came of age after Vatican II are strongly opposed to direct elections (67%), while the priests in other generational categories are evenly divided in their opinion.

Gay Priests

Sociologists and researchers who survey the priest population have provided estimates of the proportion of priests who are gay ranging from about 35% to as high as 50%. This survey asked priests to rate their sexual orientation on a five point scale with heterosexual on one end of the scale and homosexual on the other. Sixty-seven percent identified as heterosexual, 8% said they lean toward heterosexual, 5% say they are completely in the middle, 6% lean toward homosexual and 9% say they are gay.

Allegations have been made by conservative members of the Church hierarchy that problems of abuse stem from the high proportion of gay priests and the existence of a homosexual subculture in the Church. The survey asked two questions about this, first defining a subculture as “a definite group of persons that has its own friendships, social gatherings, and vocabulary.”

Under half of the priests (44%) said that such a group definitely (17%) or probably (27%) exists in their diocese. In a survey conducted by Dean Hoge for Catholic University of America in 2001, 19% of priests said “clearly there is a subculture”, 36% said their probably is and 17% said there is not.

In this survey more priests who came of age after Vatican II, along with those who have spent 20 years or less in the priesthood, say there is a homosexual subculture in the seminary they attended. Priests who have been ordained the shortest time are more apt to say that the gay subculture exists in their diocese as well. Only 26% said they thought there was a homosexual subculture in the seminary when they attended (including 12% who said definitely and 14% who said probably.) In Hoge’s study, 15% said there clearly was a subculture in their seminary, 26% said probably and 44% said no subculture.

The survey did not ask any specific questions about a link between homosexuality and child abuse, and psychologists and other experts on human sexuality generally say that sexual abuse of children is not connected to either sexual orientation or celibacy.


About a third of priests say that celibacy is not a problem for them, while 47% say it’s something that takes times to achieve and is an ongoing journey. Fourteen percent said it is a discipline they try to follow, and 2% say celibacy is not relevant to their priesthood and they do not observe it. They also think the practice of celibacy is the same whether the priest is gay or not. But more than a fifth believe it is easier for straight priests to practice celibacy than for gay priests and 2% think it is easier for homosexual priests to practice celibacy than heterosexual priests.

Most priests are also satisfied with their intimacy with others, that is non-sexual intimacy, they have with their friends.

How the Poll Was Conducted


This survey is the 471st in a series of Los Angeles Times opinion studies designed to measure public attitudes on a number of critical issues. It is the second Los Angeles Times survey of Roman Catholic priests in the United States. The study takes a look at the attitudes of priests in the Roman Catholic Church in America today, in a period when the Church is undergoing public and private scrutiny. Although Catholic-affiliated surveys of the attitudes of priests have been done recently, no independent survey of this population has been taken since the Times Poll surveyed priests and nuns over a period of months in 1993 and 1994 (LAT surveys 321 and 323).

For this survey, 1,854 active and retired priests in 80 dioceses across the U.S and in Puerto Rico returned mail-ballot questionnaires over the period June 27-Oct. 11. Diocesan and religious priests were included in the sample. Spanish language questionnaires were provided for priests in Puerto Rico.

Sample Design and Coverage

The Times Poll selected 5,000 priests from a total population of 45,382 in the United States and Puerto Rico using a two-stage procedure. First, the Official Catholic Directory (OFCD), published by P.J. Kennedy & Sons, was used to compile a complete list of all the dioceses in the country as well as the total priest population in each diocese. The list was pre-stratified by regional geography. Eighty dioceses were randomly selected, proportional to priest population in each region.

For the second-stage sample selection, Times Poll researchers obtained directories for each of the sample dioceses wherever possible. When such directories were either unavailable or actively withheld, the OFCD was substituted as a source. In this way, a sample of 5,000 active and retired priests was drawn in proportion to priest population in each diocesan area.

At this point, two Tribune newspapers -- the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. -- expressed an interest in oversampling dioceses in their areas for national comparison. In order to provide enough data for separate analysis of the three southern Pa. dioceses of interest to the Morning Call (Scranton, Allentown and Philadelphia, of which only Scranton and Philadelphia were in the first-stage sample pick) and the two dioceses of interest to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Miami and Palm Beach, neither of which was in the original first-stage sample pick), every priest in those five dioceses was contacted. Note that the data set under analysis here includes only the Times Poll’s original selected priests in the Scranton and Philadelphia dioceses.(fn1)

The survey questionnaires were first mailed on June 27. This was after the Bishop’s conference. Seven thousand two hundred and twenty-two questionnaires, cover letters and pre-paid return envelopes were sent. A second mailing of the same packet was sent to 5,878 non-responding priests on July 25. A reminder postcard was mailed to 5,707 non-responding priests on Aug. 5, and a final third set of 4,924 questionnaire packets was mailed to continuing non-responders on Sept. 4.(fn2) The end date of the survey was Oct. 11, making it a 16-week field period. In creating its design, the Times Poll followed the general guidelines for mail surveys found in Dillman’s Mail and Internet Surveys.(fn3)

Research and field work for the 78 dioceses outside southern Pa. were completed by Los Angeles Times field staff(fn4) under the supervision of Times Poll Field Director Roger Richardson and Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus. Data collection in the dioceses of Philadelphia and Scranton, Pa., was overseen for the Morning Call newspaper by Chris Borick, assistant professor of political science at Muhlenberg College.

Return Rates and Margins of Error

By the standard calculation for true random sample of a population of this size, one can say with 95% certainty that the margin of error for this sample is +/-3 percentage points. All population surveys, including this one, are subject to errors of many kinds. Bias may be introduced through coverage errors, survey non-response, question wording issues and other types of human error. Every attempt was made to reduce all of these through preliminary research and follow-ups on non-responders. Four attempts were made to convince priests to return their questionnaires.

Using a response-rate calculation that removes deceased, unqualified and reassigned priests from the sample, resulting in a total sample size of 4,965, the survey has a type A response rate of 37%. Additional removal of unavailable priests results in a sample size of 4,887 and a type B response rate of 38%. Type A response rates ranged from 30% among dioceses in the South to 44% in the Midwest.

Response rate on this survey may have been affected by a variety of issues. First, the Roman Catholic priest population has been subject to intense media scrutiny over the last few months. Many non-responding priests indicated that their refusal to cooperate was due to a concern that their answers would be sensationalized by the press. There were various negative publications about this survey in the Catholic community. Despite the negative publicity, response rates were acceptable in all dioceses and outstanding in some.

In addition to response rate issues, undetected flaws in the way the sampling and interviewing procedure were carried out could have a significant effect on findings. Changing the wording of questions and the sequence in which they are asked can produce different results. Sometimes questions are inadvertently biased or misleading and people who respond to surveys may not necessarily replicate the views of those who refuse to participate. Moreover, while every precaution has been taken to make these findings completely accurate, other errors may have resulted from the various practical difficulties associated with taking any survey of public opinion.

Some of the best data available for comparison on this survey are surveys of priest populations conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Comparing numbers of active and retired priests nationwide(fn5) to those in our survey, one can see that this survey slightly overrepresents active diocesan priests and underrepresents religious priests.

All US(fn5) LA Times

Priests Priests Poll 2002

Diocesan, Active 48% 54%Diocesan, Retired 15 14Religious, Active 31 28Religious, Retired 6 4

Comparing sample population to the figures taken from the Official Catholic Directory, the sample slightly underrepresents priests in the East and Midwest and overrepresents those in the South. The sample figures have been adjusted slightly to account for this difference.


All US LA Times

Priests* Priests Poll 2002

East 38% 36%Midwest 17 13South 30 35West 15 16

* Figures calculated from population totals in Official Catholic Directory 2001.

The Los Angeles Times Poll is directed by Susan Pinkus under the general supervision of Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Dean Baquet. Jill Darling Richardson is Associate Director, Roger Richardson is Field Director, Claudia Vaughn is Data Management Supervisor, and Ray Enslow is Publications Coordinator.

Further information regarding this study is available by writing to the Los Angeles Times Poll, 202 West 1st Street, Los Angeles, California 90012-4105, by calling (213) 237-2027 or by e-mailing

This report conforms to the standards of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls and the American Association for Public Opinion Research.


1. Only the dioceses originally selected in the first stage and priests originally selected in the second stage of the sampling process are included in this data set. No interviews conducted in the dioceses of Allentown, Miami or Palm Beach have been included and the interviews with non-sampled priests are excluded as well.

2. Fifty-five percent of the total completed and refused questionnaires had been returned by the date of the second mailing, 68% by the date of the reminder postcard mailing, and 88% by the date of the third and final mailing.

3. Mail and Internet Surveys, The Tailored Design Method, by Dillman, Don A., John Wiley & Sons, 2000 (2nd ed.)

4. The Times Poll would like to acknowledge supervisor Art Dodd and editors Walter Boxer, Debra Birgen and Cynthia Kirk for their diligence and hard work on this survey.

5. National study of priests conducted by CARA in 1999 for the Committee for Priestly Life and Ministry of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.