As the Catholic church responds to more allegations of sexual abuse of young people by priests, an increasing percentage of Catholics are re-examining their commitment to the religion. Thirty-seven percent of U.S. Catholics, up from 22% in 2002, say news of the abuse has led them to question whether they would remain in the church.
These results are based on interviews with 581 U.S. Catholics who participated in Gallup polls Jan. 21-27 and Feb. 12-28. While the polling was being conducted, Pope Francis met with Catholic leaders from around the world at the Vatican to respond to a new wave of sex abuse allegations in numerous countries. The church dealt with a similar crisis in the U.S. in 2002, the last time Gallup polled about this. That polling came after The Boston Globe reported on widespread abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area and church leaders’ efforts to prevent the abuse from becoming public knowledge.
Gallup’s latest findings show that the current scandal is affecting U.S. Catholics more than the one in 2002 did, in terms of their feelings about the church. However, it is unclear whether Catholics who are questioning their church membership will actually decide to leave the church. Many Catholics may consider leaving the church but ultimately decide not to do so, or they may have no intention of leaving but simply be responding to this question as a way to express their frustration with the way the church has handled the problem.
Substantial minorities of both practicing and nonpracticing Catholics say they are questioning their commitment to the church — but, as might be expected, those less committed to their religion are more likely to be questioning it. Whereas 46% of Catholics who seldom or never attend church say they have questioned whether they would remain in the faith, 37% of those who attend church on a monthly basis and 22% who attend weekly say the same.
The same pattern existed in 2002, although both practicing and nonpracticing Catholics are more likely now than in 2002 to be questioning their place in the church. Seventeen years ago, only one in eight weekly churchgoers were re-examining their membership, as were 24% of semi-regular churchgoers and 29% of infrequent ones.
There are no meaningful differences in the proportions of Catholics questioning their church membership by age or gender.