A growing number of American Catholics are reconsidering their loyalty to the global church as it continues on a slow path toward reforming how it handles clerical sexual abuse.
A Gallup poll published Wednesday found that 37 percent of U.S. Catholics have questioned whether they will remain part of the church this year amid recent news about sexual abuse of young people by priests. This is up from 22 percent who said the same in 2002, the last time Gallup conducted polling on this question.
That year, The Boston Globe Spotlight team’s investigation into clerical abuse and the church’s cover-up in the Boston area helped expose the scandal nationwide.
Over the past year, the Roman Catholic Church has experienced a renewed reckoning, as lay Catholics questioned whether the church’s secretive, self-protective culture has really changed since 2002, and whether bishops have been held accountable for covering up the issue.
The latest allegations have toppled prominent church leaders in the U.S., Australia and Chile. Pope Francis himself has been criticized for reacting poorly to victims’ concerns.
In America, Catholics were stunned to find out last year that it was apparently an open secret in some church circles that a powerful prelate, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, slept with adult seminarians. The Vatican defrocked McCarrick in February, but questions still remain about how the former cardinal was able to ascend to such a prominent position while flouting the church’s moral principles ― and how long Francis has known that McCarrick was a sexual predator.
Gallup’s survey was based on telephone interviews conducted between Jan. 21 and Feb. 28 with 581 U.S. Catholics. Between Feb. 21 and Feb. 24, about 190 top-ranking bishops, religious superiors and other Catholic officials convened in Rome at Francis’ behest to attend the church’s first summit on preventing sex abuse. The goal of the summit was to convince bishops from around the world that clerical sexual abuse isn’t just a problem in some countries, but an issue threatening the entire church. Key global advocacy groups that have spent years representing abuse survivors were notably absent from the summit’s main program.
Francis ended the summit by vowing to hold predator priests accountable, end cover-ups and prioritize victims. The Vatican also announced that it planned to issue a new child protection policy for the Vatican City State that covers the Holy See’s bureaucracy ― five years after it told the United Nations that such a policy was in the works.
But survivors were ultimately disappointed that Francis still hasn’t offered a concrete plan to hold bishops accountable for covering up abuse.
The majority of American Catholics surveyed by Gallup this year (62 percent) said they haven’t personally questioned whether they would remain in the Catholic Church. But substantial minorities of both practicing and nonpracticing Catholics have been re-examining their commitment to the church in light of the current crisis.
Catholics who attended church less frequently were more likely than regular attendees to question their church membership. But even regular attendees are experiencing doubts, the survey found. In 2002, only 12 percent of weekly churchgoers said they were re-examining their membership. In 2019, that number jumped to 22 percent.
Gallup cautioned that it is unclear whether Catholics who say they are questioning church membership will actually make the decision to leave.
“Many Catholics may consider leaving the church but ultimately decide not to do so, or they may have no intention of leaving but simply be responding to this question as a way to express their frustration with the way the church has handled the problem,” the report noted.
The Gallup poll also asked Catholics to rate how confident they were in church leaders. Across the board, respondents expressed confidence in Francis and their own parish priests, but were less confident in American bishops and Catholic priests in general. While 86 percent of weekly churchgoers said they were confident in the priests at their local church, only 48 percent said expressed confidence in Catholic priests more generally and 49 percent said the same about American bishops.
Gallup suggested that the current sex abuse crisis could have a lasting effect on the U.S. Catholic Church. Besides leaving the denomination, Catholics could also express their discontent by attending less frequently or being less willing to listen to church leaders’ teachings on matters of faith, the report noted.
Other surveys have indicated that Catholicism in the U.S. has experienced sharp losses due to people leaving the faith. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics ― meaning they were raised in the Catholic Church but no longer identify with the faith. For every convert to Catholicism, Pew said there are more than six former Catholics. Pew claimed that no other major American religious denomination has experienced this high ratio of losses to gains through religious switching.