Rank-and-File Catholics Prefer Zero Tolerance for Abusive Priests

by David W. Moore

Would also remove bishops who knowingly failed to report abuses

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- According to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, Catholics are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the way the Catholic Church has handled the problem of sexual abuse committed by priests. Rank-and-file Catholics support a zero-tolerance policy against even first-time offenders, and they want the pope to essentially fire bishops and cardinals who were aware of past abuses but did not report them to the police. Most Catholics would like the pope to remove Cardinal Bernard Law as head of the archdiocese in Boston. Despite criticism of the church hierarchy, Catholics still give the pope a very favorable rating.

Last week, U.S. Catholic Church leaders met with Pope John Paul II to discuss the sexual abuse scandal plaguing the church, but they came away with somewhat contradictory impressions as to whether the pope did or did not support a zero-tolerance policy for priests charged with sexual abuse. According to the New York Times, the pope told his visitors, "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." But he also said, "We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion," which "can work extraordinary change" in sinners. While some bishops interpret the pope's statements as support for a zero-tolerance policy, others point to the need for "Christian conversion" and forgiveness, especially for priests who were molesters years ago but have maintained a clean record since.

Few lay Catholics, however, are willing to rely on forgiveness in such a serious breach of priesthood trust. According to the poll, 79% want a priest dismissed from the priesthood if he has been found guilty of repeatedly sexually abusing young people. Another 13% would allow the priest to remain in the priesthood if he were also removed from any ministry or contact with the laity. Just 6% would allow the priest to remain in the parish, even after undergoing counseling.

Priests Who Are Found Guilty of Sexually Abusing Children: What Should the Church Do?
April 29-May 1, 2002

For first-time offenders as well, Catholics show little tolerance. Most Catholics -- 66% -- support dismissal from the priesthood for first-time offenders, although 20% would go along with removing the priest from any ministry duties but still allowing him to remain in the priesthood, and 11% would allow him back in the parish after rehabilitation.

Punishment for Bishops and Cardinals

One of the issues that has inflamed the lay members of the church has been the reassignment of known pedophile priests to other parishes. Many see this as an attempt by the church to cover up the abuse problem rather than to confront it. The poll shows that, in principle, 86% of Catholics want the pope to remove a bishop or cardinal from his position as head of a diocese or archdiocese, if the bishop or cardinal has knowingly reassigned a molester to another parish, rather than report the abuse to the police. In the specific case of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who has admitted that such reassignments took place during his tenure, 68% of Catholics want the pope to remove the cardinal from his position as head of the Boston archdiocese, while 15% do not. Another 17% are unsure.

Should the Pope Remove:
April 29-May 1, 2002

Low Rating for Church, High Opinion of the Pope

Overall, 70% of Catholics say the Catholic Church is doing a bad job of dealing with the problem of sexual abuse committed by its priests. That number is little changed from the 72% who expressed that view in March, but up considerably from the 53% who had that view in August 1993, during a period when other charges of sexual abuse were being made against priests.

Despite this negative view of the church, and despite some criticism of the pope for failing initially to take action to deal with the problem, Pope John Paul II is viewed quite positively. Seventy-eight percent of all Catholics say they have a favorable opinion of the pontiff, while just 16% say unfavorable. When asked if the pope should resign for health reasons or remain in office until he dies, Catholics choose the pope's position -- to remain in office -- by a margin of 59% to 36%.

Survey Methods

The latest results are based on telephone interviews with -- 1,002 national adults, aged 18+, conducted April 29-May 1, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. For results based on the sample of -- 212 -- Catholics, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Next, we'd like to ask you some questions about the Catholic Church. First,

Overall, do you think the Catholic Church has done a good job or a bad job in dealing with the problem of sexual abuse committed by its priests?

 

Good job

Bad job

No opinion

%

%

%

National Adults

2002 Apr 29-May 1

18

73

9

2002 Mar 18-20

17

68

15

Catholics

2002 Apr 29-May 1 ^

24

70

6

2002 Mar

20

72

8

1993 Aug 3-5

35

53

12

^

BASED ON -- 212 -- CATHOLICS



Do you think the Pope should -- or should not -- remove Cardinal Bernard Law as head of the archdiocese in Boston?

BASED ON -- 212 -- CATHOLICS

 

Yes, should

No, should not

No opinion

2002 Apr 29-May 1

68%

15

17



If a Catholic bishop or cardinal knew that a priest had been sexually abusing young people and had moved the priest to another parish rather than report him to the police, do you think the Pope should -- or should not -- remove that bishop or cardinal as head of that diocese?

BASED ON -- 212 -- CATHOLICS

 

Yes, should

No, should not

No opinion

2002 Apr 29-May 1

86%

9

5



What should the Church do with a priest who has been found guilty of repeatedly sexually abusing young people? Should the Church -- [ROTATED: remove him from the priesthood altogether, remove him from any parish or personal contact with any of the laity, but not dismiss him from the priesthood, or allow him to remain in a parish or other ministry if he apologizes and successfully goes through counseling]?

 

BASED ON -- 212 -- CATHOLICS

 

 


Remove altogether

Remove
from parish but do not dismiss

Allow to
remain
in parish


No
opinion

2002 Apr 29-May 1

79%

13

6

2



 

 

What should the Church do with a priest who has been found guilty of a single instance of sexually abusing a young person? Should the Church -- [ROTATED: remove him from the priesthood altogether, remove him from any parish or personal contact with any of the laity, but not dismiss him from the priesthood, or allow him to remain in a parish or other ministry if he apologizes and successfully goes through counseling]?

 

BASED ON -- 212 -- CATHOLICS

 

 


Remove altogether

Remove
from parish but do not dismiss

Allow to
remain
in parish


No
opinion

2002 Apr 29-May 1

66%

20

11

3



 

Do you think Pope John Paul II should -- [ROTATED: resign for health reasons (or do you think he should) remain in office until he dies]?

BASED ON -- 212 -- CATHOLICS

 

Resign
for health reasons

Remain
until death

No
opinion

2002 Apr 29-May 1

36%

59

5



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