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Vatican's Handling of Clergy Sex Abuse Gets Failing Grade in Survey

4 years ago
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American Catholics by a nearly 2-1 margin think the Vatican has done a "poor job" handling the clergy sex abuse crisis, a dim view that follows months of embarrassing revelations and reports of persistent inaction by top church officials, including then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

Yet there is some good news for Rome as perceptions of Benedict have improved markedly of late, with 43 percent of Catholics now saying they view the pontiff favorably, up from just 27 percent in March.
Those favorable ratings are still quite low for a reigning pope, and they are much worse among the U.S. population as a whole. Just 16 percent of Americans overall have a favorable perception of the pope, and 24 percent have an unfavorable perception, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll released Tuesday. Nearly six in 10 are unsure or haven't heard enough.

The mixed news continues throughout the survey, some of it reflecting reality, though not all of it.

For example, while the incidence of abuse by priests has plummeted since the early 1980s, the survey shows that 55 percent of Catholics still believe sexual abuse by priests remains a problem. Among all Americans, the figure is 73 percent.

On the other hand, half of all Americans say the Vatican is now trying to prevent child sex abuse while just a third say the Vatican is trying to cover up the problem. Among Catholics, three-quarters say the Vatican is now trying to prevent abuse, while 17 percent say it is trying to cover it up. Still, most American and most Catholics trace the crisis to previous attempts by the Vatican to sweep the scandal under the rug.

Moreover, two-thirds of all Americans (66 percent) and 58 percent of Catholics, say the Vatican has done a poor job handing child sexual abuses cases. Those who attend Mass weekly are almost evenly divided on the Vatican's handling of the abuse scandal, with 45 percent saying Rome has done a good job and 44 percent disagreeing.

Support for the pope, the Vatican and the rest of the hierarchy is stronger on all questions among weekly Mass attenders, which is good news for Rome. On the media's handling of the story, Catholics by a small margin say the reports have been "blown out of proportion" and coverage harder on the Catholic Church than other religions.

But even there, the message is mixed.

By a wide margin Catholics say the abuse crisis has not caused them to view their church in a more negative light, and nearly nine in 10 say the scandals have not led them to question their membership in the church or their relationship with their own priest. Catholics say the crisis will have no effect on their contributions or their expected Mass attendance, either.

Yet more than half of American Catholics say the Vatican is out of touch with their lives, and a whopping 77 percent say that "someone who does not believe in the authority of the Pope can still be a good Catholic."

That figure, unchanged over the past 15 years, gives the Vatican a headache. But that view may have been the salvation of American Catholicism in these recent years of scandal, as Catholics express satisfaction and loyalty in their parish and their pastors even as they increasingly distrust the Vatican and even the pope himself.

As for the reasons why priests abused children, Catholics and Americans overall believe that gays in the priesthood and the ban on married priests are factors contributing to the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

In the poll, 31 percent of Catholics said they thought celibacy was a major factor leading to sexual abuse, while almost the same number (30 percent) said they believed homosexuality played a major role. Some 28 percent called celibacy a "minor factor" and 23 percent said homosexuality was a minor factor.

Just 35 percent said celibacy did not play a part in the abuse and 37 percent said homosexuality in the priesthood was not a factor.

In general, the number of Catholics who think celibacy and homosexuality factor into the abuse by priests is not surprising, and is perhaps lower than expected given the enormous amount of attention -- and blame -- put on those two issues. In broad terms, liberals are often seen as blaming celibacy while conservatives are often pointing a finger at gay priests as the problem.

Indeed, the pope's own Secretary of State and second-ranking Vatican official after the pontiff, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, got in hot water last month when he claimed that homosexuality was associated with pedophilia.

The reality is that there is little evidence to support the claim that either homosexuality or celibacy, or some combination of the two, are major causes contributing to the abuse, as I noted in a recent piece in The Washington Post on "Five Myths" of the abuse crisis.

For example, the sexual abuse of children occurs in other professions with a similar profile to the priesthood, such as teaching and the Boy Scouts, and even across denominations. "We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else," Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Newsweek. "I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others."

Those who blame gay priests note that some 80 percent of the victims in the United States were boys (about 60-70 percent of all reported cases coming to the Vatican), and argue that means homosexuality is the culprit. But as criminologists studying the clerical abuse of children report, that ratio does not translate neatly into cases of abuse by gay men. In fact, it has long been noted that the incidence of pedophilia is highest among married men with families.

Overall, men are far more likely than women to sexually abuse children, yet more than half of the poll respondents (53 percent) said the all-male priesthood was "not a factor" in the abuse and just 17 percent said it was a major factor.

That is probably just as well, because while Pope Benedict XVI has barred gays from the seminary as a way to stem the abuse crisis, ordaining women as priests is one solution the pontiff is definitely not considering.

On the other hand, a strong majority (59 percent) of American Catholics would let women be ordained, and the number is nearly the same among weekly Mass attenders, the Vatican's "base," if you will.

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