Catholic Church: Americans see improvement in handling of sex abuse

February 13, 2014, 7:53 PM GMT+0

Though many think the Catholic Church has changed direction for the better in terms of it's handling of sexual abuse, many Americans have an unfavorable view of the Church.

The Catholic Church under Pope Francis is now seen as trying to solve the problem of sexual abuse of children by priests, far different from the perception of what it had done in the past in response to charges of sexual abuse by priests. But the latest Economist/YouGov Poll suggests there is still a long way to go – with many Americans continuing to see a Church cover-up of the abuse.

Sexual abuse

Well over half the public, and nearly half of Catholics, believe that in the past the Church mainly tried to cover up sexual abuse, rather than try to protect children from abuse. Now the number saying it is mostly covering up has dropped to 25% overall. But for a majority, the Church still has a cover-up as part of its concerns, with many saying covering up the abuse is as important to the Church as protecting children.

Even many Catholics are dubious. Nearly as many attribute the Church’s current behavior at least in part to a desire to cover up past abuse as to caring mostly about the victims.

The perception of past Church behavior may have improved in the last few years, as Americans recognize a change in Church activity. In a CBS News/New York Times poll in April, 2002, 80% said that the Vatican had in the past been mostly interested in covering up abuse.

The Vatican’s past behavior on this issue has taken a toll: a third of Americans, and nearly as many Catholics say their opinion of the Church has gotten more negative because of the abuse and cover-up.

The negative response comes both from those who say religion is very important in their lives and those who say it is not important.

Favorability of the Catholic Church

Perhaps because of the scandal, the overall view of the Catholic Church among Americans today is narrowly negative – nearly half say they have an unfavorable view of the Catholic Church, with only 37% favorable. Catholics are positive about their Church, although one in five Catholics also express an unfavorable view. A large majority of non-believers – atheists and agnostics – as well as half of those with no religious preference are unfavorable.

Opinion about the Catholic Church suffered badly in 2002, the year a cover-up of pastoral abuse in the Boston Archdiocese received major news coverage. In December 2002, the ABC News/Washington Post Poll found a majority with unfavorable views of the Church. Opinion appears to have recovered somewhat since then.

The sexual abuse of children is not just a Church problem: most say abuse is as common elsewhere. But nearly one in four think it is more common in the Catholic Church, with non-Christians more likely than Christians – Catholic and Protestants – saying that. 15% of Catholics think it is more common in their Church.

ACA and contraceptives

In the United States, groups associated with the Catholic Church have been adamant about opposing the new health care law’s requirement that employer insurance cover contraceptives, something the Church rejects. Americans support this requirement for all employers, though Catholics do so only narrowly.

Responses to this question seem more political than religious. Although those who are most religious in general are more opposed to the coverage requirement, it’s among Republicans and conservatives where opposition is highest: 65% of Republicans and 62% of conservatives oppose requiring employers to cover contraceptives. But few in any religion – or any party -- see the use of birth control as morally wrong. Only 7% of Catholics and 10% of Protestants think it is.

Firing teachers

In addition, Catholics and Protestant don’t believe a religious private school should be able to file an unmarried teacher who becomes pregnant.

Even more women -- 71% -- disagree.

Republicans take a somewhat different view: by 44% to 39% they think a religious private school should be able to fire an unmarried pregnant teacher.

Image: Getty

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

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