How the child sex abuse scandal impacts the Catholic Church – and Catholics

February 28, 2019, 9:30 PM GMT+0

One in three Catholics hold an unfavorable view of the church

The Catholic Church is losing support as a sexual abuse scandal and details of its cover-up unfolds around the world. The conviction of an Australian Cardinal for child sexual abuse, the defrocking of an American Cardinal for the same, and publication of the numbers of American priests charged with the abuse of minors have made the Church suspect to many Americans. In the latest Economist/YouGov Poll, half the public holds an unfavorable opinion of the Catholic Church. So do one in three Catholics.

Fewer than half now have a favorable opinion of Pope Francis. Nearly three and a half years ago, as the Pope made his first trip to the United States, his ratings and those of his Church were far better. 68% of the American public and 84% of Catholics in a September 2015 Economist/YouGov Poll had a favorable view of him. Now, as many Americans say Pope Francis has made them think worse of the Catholic Church as say the Pope has made them think better of it.

Positive views of the Church have gone down in the last few years. In a September 2015 CNN Poll, 60% held a favorable view of the Catholic Church, while just 30% were unfavorable. Since then, there has been more news about incidents of sexual abuse, as well as the release of Spotlight, which won a Best Picture Oscar in 2016 for telling the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation of clerical abuse in Boston’s Catholic Archdiocese.

Pope Francis held a Vatican Summit on sexual abuse following the outcries of sexual abuse survivors. But not many Americans are aware of the Vatican Summit – only 11% of people have heard a lot about it, while 14% of Catholics have heard a lot about it. In contrast, in the same Economist/YouGov poll, more than half (56%) had heard a lot about the allegations that actor Jussie Smollett had staged a racial assault on himself.

The Pope’s summit on child sex abuse took place with the Catholic Church clearly threatened by abuse charges. While other religious groups have faced abuse accusations, many Americans currently view the situation in the Catholic Church as worse than that of other religions. More than a third of Americans believe sexual abuse is more common in the Catholic Church than in other religions.

The share of Catholics who believe abuse is more common in the Catholic Church has increased six points from a year ago. Among Catholics, one in ten knows someone who was a victim of sexual abuse.

Catholics have become increasingly willing to recognize that there was abuse, but many see it as something that occurred in the past. 42% of Catholics believe “many” priests were guilty of sexual abuse of teenagers and children, in other words, that the problem was widespread. But fewer than half that percentage think it is widespread today. Americans overall are more likely than Catholics are to see abuse both in the past and today.

Few Catholics say abuse is committed by “hardly any” priests either in the past or today, and the belief that “many” priests were engaged in it in the past has jumped 12 points among Catholics in the last year.

Also in the last year, Catholics appear to have become more open to what would be truly major changes in the Catholic Church’s rules about clergy. A majority of Catholics now say they are in favor of allowing priests to marry. That is up ten points in the last year.

Catholics who describe themselves as ideologically conservative also say they believe priests should be allowed to marry, 52% to 27%. There is less support for permitting the ordination of women, though half of Catholics would support that, too. Conservative Catholics are evenly divided on this, 32% to 34%.

Read the full toplines and tables reports.