By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
BALTIMORE – As the U.S. Catholic bishops meet this week in an effort to turn the tide on the clergy abuse crisis, a new study reveals that a majority of Americans believe abuse at the hands of priests and bishops to be an “ongoing problem” – with one-quarter of Catholics scaling back Mass attendance as a consequence.
Yet despite the ongoing nature of the problem, new findings released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center show that most Americans do not believe that the abuse of minors is more likely to occur in a religious setting than in a nonreligious one.
According to the data, nine out of 10 Americans say they’ve heard about the clergy abuse scandals, with a majority of respondents saying they have heard “a lot” about them.
Among those surveyed, eight-in-ten believe abuse to be an “ongoing problem,” including 69 percent of Catholics who believe it to be the case, compared to just 24 percent of Catholics who believe abuse to be a thing of the past.
Respondents were generally split on the question of whether they believed abuse to be more common among Catholic leaders than other religious traditions, with 48 percent of those surveyed saying it was more common among Catholics and 47 percent who believe it is “equally common” among other religious groups – however an overwhelming majority said they had a higher level of awareness of the clergy abuse scandals within the Catholic Church.
The new study comes as the U.S. Catholic bishops are in Baltimore for their bi-annual meeting where they plan to enact new guidelines for the accountability and conduct of Catholic bishops. Meanwhile, also taking place this week in Alabama, is a meeting of Southern Baptist leaders where a reckoning with its own emerging abuse crisis is expected to take place.
As Catholic leaders seek to turn the page on the crisis which has dominated headlines since last summer following the downfall of one of the American Church’s most prominent leaders, the former priest and cardinal Theodore McCarrick, as well as a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report chronicling seven decades of abuse that triggered over a dozen statewide investigations in the Catholic Church, 27 percent of Catholics say they have scaled back Mass attendance and 26 percent have reduced their financial contributions to their parish.
Even so, 55 percent of respondents said they believe Pope Francis has done an “excellent” or “good” job responding to the abuse crisis, with 64 percent of Mass going Catholics approving of his handling of it.
On a local level, 49 percent of Catholics give their bishop a favorable approval. On the whole, however, only 36 percent said the same thing about the U.S. bishops as a collective body.
More than 6,364 U.S. adults were involved in a poll conducted online March 18 to April 1, 2019, which took place after Francis convened the head of every Catholic bishops’ conference from around the world to Rome for a summit where he pledged an “all out war” on abuse.
In May, after the survey for this study was conducted, the Vatican issued new guidelines on abuse, which makes it mandatory for all clerics and members of religious orders to report cases of clerical sexual abuse to Church authorities, including when committed by bishops or cardinals.
Every diocese around the world is mandated to have a system in place for implementing the new Vatican guidelines by June 2020.