Americans lack confidence in some churches' abilities to handle sexual-abuse allegations

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
September 12, 2022, 1:18 PM GMT+0

Three churches have made headlines recently for their alleged roles in covering up claims of sexual abuse. In May, leaders of the country's largest protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, published a review alleging that reports of sexual abuse were suppressed by top church officials for two decades. In mid-August, Southern Baptist leaders announced that the church is under federal investigation for sexual abuse. Less than two weeks earlier, the Associated Press published an analysis of sealed records from a child sexual-abuse lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the Mormon church) in West Virginia, revealing how the church's helpline allows church leaders to divert abuse accusations away from law enforcement and toward church attorneys. The Catholic Church has long faced allegations of sexual abuse by its leaders, which continue to surface; last week, Pope Francis addressed these claims, saying he takes personal responsibility for ending the problem.

According to a recent YouGov poll, most Americans – 85% – have heard about allegations of Catholic leaders covering up child sexual abuse. Fewer say they've heard about allegations made against the Mormon church (55%) or the Southern Baptist Convention (53%). Americans are also far more likely to say child sexual abuse is a "very big problem" in the Catholic Church (49%) than to say the same about the Mormon church (26%) or Southern Baptist churches (22%). At the same time, people are no more confident in the Mormon or Southern Baptist churches' ability to handle the problem than they are in the Catholic Church's: Only one in four (26%) say they have at least some confidence in the Catholic Church's or the Southern Baptist churches' ability to address future abuse allegations, and only 23% have confidence in the Mormon church's ability to do so.

Given the breadth of recent allegations, some have questioned whether sexual abuse occurs more frequently in churches than in other walks of life. Americans are divided on this proposition: 31% say it's more common in churches than in other walks of life, 38% say it's equally common, and 12% say it's less common. People who say religion is "not at all" important to them are far more likely to believe abuse is more prevalent in churches: Half (50%) say it is, compared to 25% of people who say religion is either very, somewhat, or not too important to them.

What steps could be taken to address the problem? Most Americans (57%) think that allowing only men to be ordained as priests or pastors – as is the case in each of the three churches polled – plays a role in contributing to sexual abuse in churches: 36% say it's a major factor, 21% say it's a minor factor, and 19% say it's not a factor. Women are more likely than men to say it is a contributing factor. At least half of Americans support allowing women to be ordained in each of the three churches asked about (the Catholic Church, Southern Baptist churches, and the Mormon church). For each church, fewer than one in four Americans oppose allowing women to be ordained.

An even larger share of Americans (64%) believe that requiring priests to remain celibate – as the Catholic Church does – contributes to child sexual abuse, including 43% who say it's a major factor in abuse and 21% who say it's a minor factor.

Two-thirds of Americans (69%) – including two-thirds of Catholics (66%) – support allowing Catholic priests to marry. On this question, men are more likely than women to be in favor of changing the rules.

In a little over half of states, members of the clergy are mandated by law to report known or suspected instances of child abuse. However, in a number of states, privileged communications between clergy and penitents, such as in the case of a spiritual confession, are exempt from the requirement to report abuse under laws protecting "clergy-penitent privilege." Four in five Americans (80%) say clergy should be required to report plausible cases of child abuse to police and social workers, and 66% say they should be required to do so even if they were told about the abuse in confidence during a person's spiritual confession.

As church leaders often hold a position of power and influence, some states have placed restrictions on when a member of the clergy can engage in sex with people under their spiritual guidance. In Texas, for example, the law states that if a clergy member exploits a person’s emotional dependency for sex, then it is without consent. Compared to how they feel about laws governing the reporting of child sexual abuse, fewer Americans – 62% – say it should be illegal for clergy to exploit an adult's emotional dependency on them for sex.

Many Americans lack confidence in the justice system's ability to handle allegations against clergy involving child sexual abuse: Only 12% of Americans believe such cases are usually prosecuted, while 24% say they sometimes are, and 49% say they rarely or never are. This perceived lack of accountability could factor into how Americans feel about the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse: Nearly half of people (46%) believe there should be no maximum time frame in which a person can seek to file child sexual-abuse charges. People who believe clergy members are rarely prosecuted for such abuse are even more likely to oppose filing charges after a certain amount of time.

One in 10 Americans (11%) say they personally know a person who as a child was sexually abused by a clergy member or church official. Women (13%) are more likely than men (9%) to say they know a victim. In an open-ended question asking respondents to share additional thoughts at the end of the survey, a number of people shared their own experiences with abuse in churches. Many people also took the opportunity to express dismay, anger, and disgust over the issue. Some respondents, most of whom were not affiliated with a religion, called for the removal of churches' tax-exempt status in light of widespread abuse allegations.

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

This poll was conducted on August 30 - September 4, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

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