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Mass. Catholics fault church on handling of sex charges

Most polled say issue hasn't affected confidence in institution

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 7/26/1992

 More results
Poll: police should handle abuse
assachusetts Catholics are highly dissatisfied with the way church officials have handled charges of sexual abuse by priests, with seven out of 10 Catholics believing their church has covered up the problem and has not done enough to address it, according to a poll conducted for the Globe.

But 72 percent of the Catholics surveyed insist that the problem has not caused them to lose confidence in the church as an institution. Indeed, nine out of 10 say they do not attend Mass less frequently or contribute less money to the church as a result.

The poll highlights some of the differences between practicing Catholics and lapsed Catholics. Asked to describe themselves as either lapsed or practicing, 57 percent said they were practicing while 39 percent said they were lapsed Catholics.

Lapsed or inactive Catholics, who are the object of an advertising campaign by the Archdiocese of Boston aimed at persuading them to come back to church, are somewhat more likely than practicing Catholics to criticize the church's record on a variety of issues, particularly abortion.

The random telephone survey of 401 men and women over 18 who identified themselves as Catholics was conducted July 20 and 21 by KRC Communications Research of Newton. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

The results show that a majority of Catholics disagree with their church's position on women's ordination, birth control and married priests. Six out of 10 respondents disagreed with the church position on birth control and said that women should be allowed to be priests. And 73 percent said that priests should be permitted to marry.

Although 35 percent of respondents said Cardinal Bernard Law's handling of the sexual abuse cases was poor or terrible, a majority of 58 percent said they had a favorable view of the cardinal compared with only 15 percent who said they had an unfavorable view of him.

Attitudes among Catholics toward a variety of issues differed by age, sex and whether individuals were practicing or lapsed.

Disagreement with the church's position on women's ordination, birth control and married priests was highest among parents and Catholics under age 40, lowest among Catholics over 65.

Support for women's ordination was 55 percent among female Catholics interviewed but jumped to 67 percent among male Catholics.

The degree of disagreement with the church's position on women's ordination, birth control and married priests was consistent with the findings of two recent national polls.

Forty-six percent of respondents said the Catholic faith was very important in their everyday life, while 37 percent said it was somewhat important and 17 percent said it was not very important.

The survey found a significant gender gap on several issues. Women were far more likely to call themselves practicing Catholics, at 72 percent, or to say that faith was very important to them, at 61 percent. Only 40 percent of men said they were practicing Catholics, and only 31 percent said faith was very important to them.

Age and income also made a difference. Those over 40 were more likely to be practicing, with 68 percent of those age 40 to 64 and 72 percent of those 65 and older describing themselves that way. And those who said their annual income was higher than $60,000 were only half as likely to say faith was very important, compared with those with incomes less than $30,000, by a difference of 26 to 53 percent.

But the survey found great consistency in the criticism of the church's handling of sexual abuse problems, across gender, income, geographical area and degree of religious involvement.

The vast majority -- 73 percent -- think such inappropriate behavior "happens more often than we know."

Seventy-one percent of those who identified themselves as Catholic in the telephone survey believe their church "has tried to cover up these kinds of incidents."

Respondents to the poll are also strongly dissatisfied with their church's record on sexual abuse. Sixty-nine percent agreed "the church has not done enough to address these kinds of incidents."

In all, 69 percent of the survey's respondents said that priests who engage in improper sexual contact should be expelled from the priesthood. Forty-seven percent said guilty priests should be "immediately prohibited from ever serving in the priesthood again," while 22 percent said guilty priests should be expelled after treatment.

Despite the criticism of church officials, respondents said the problem of sexual abuse had not affected their relationship to the Catholic Church.

Only 26 percent of the respondents said that what they have learned about incidents involving sexual abuse has "caused them to lose confidence in the church as an institution," compared with 72 percent who said they had not lost confidence.

The proportion of those who said they had lost confidence was slightly higher among those who identified themselves as lapsed -- 37 percent, compared with 19 percent among practicing Catholics -- and those who said faith was not very important to them -- 47 percent, compared with 43 percent of those who described their faith as very or somewhat important to them.

Most respondents -- 93 percent -- said that learning about incidents of sexual abuse had not caused them to attend Mass less regularly, and 92 percent said it had not caused them to donate less money to the church.

But reports of the sexual abuse problem have had an impact on those with children in their teens or younger.

Forty-eight percent of the 164 respondents with teen-agers or or younger children said such incidents have caused them to discuss the problem with their children. And 21 percent of those parents said such incidents had caused them concern about sending their children to church alone, compared with 77 percent who said they had not been caused concern.

Overall, a huge proportion, 96 percent of the respondents, said they were aware of recent news stories about "inappropriate sexual contact" between priests and young people.

A strong majority of Catholics want church officials to take such cases directly to the police. Overall, 65 percent said the church should "report the matter to law enforcement authorities," with only 19 percent agreeing that "the church should handle the matter internally."

Only about a quarter of those polled said the church should not be held responsible for incidents that happened long ago. In all, 57 percent said the church is still responsible, while 24 percent said the church should not be held responsible "if charges made against a priest are more than 10 years old."

Catholics in the poll also disagreed with the way church officials have generally handled accusations of sexual abuse, principally by sending the accused into a treatment program and later considering whether to return offenders to ministry.

Only 18 percent of those polled supported a return to ministry after mandatory chuch-sponsored treatment.

An even smaller proportion, 12 percent, said they believed priest offenders should have contact with children after treatment. By contrast, 19 percent said such priests should return so long as they had no contact with children, while 58 percent said they should not be allowed to return to ministry even after treatment.

By contrast, a large majority of Catholics said the church should pay for psychological counseling for victims. Sixty-nine percent of those polled said the church should pay for counseling provided by someone other than a priest, while only 20 percent said the church should not pay.

But Catholics were divided about a state law that limits to $20,000 the civil liability of churches and other nonprofit institutions. Nine percent of respondents said $20,000 was too much, 39 percent said it was not enough, 32 percent said the sum is about right and 20 percent said they did not know.

A little more than a third of Catholics, or 35 percent, said they thought there had been too much news coverage of church sexual abuse cases.

But 50 percent said coverage had been "about right," and 13 percent said there had not been enough. Dissatisfaction with news coverage was higher among Catholics over age 40 and among those who identified themselves as practicing rather than lapsed or those who said their faith was very important to them.

Results in the Globe survey were similiar to data from recent national polls on issues of concern to Catholics.

A May survey by the Gallup Organization, with 802 respondents and an error rate of 4 percent, found that 67 percent of Catholics supported women's ordination, 87 percent believe the church should permit couples to make their own decisions about the form of birth control, and 75 percent want to meet a current shortage of priests by ordaining married men.

A June 1992 national poll of 304 Catholics by Daniel Yankelovich for Time magazine and CNN, with a 5.6 percent error rate, found 63 percent favored women's ordination, 79 percent disagreed with the statement that "using artificial means of birth control is wrong," and 61 percent favored allowing married priests.

MAJORITY SUPPORT CARDINAL

Massachusetts Catholics are critical of the way Cardinal Bernard F. Law has handled the issue of clergy sexual abuse but view him favorably overall, according to a poll conducted for the Globe.

A solid majority, 58 percent, said they had a favorable view of Cardinal Law while only 15 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of him.

The generally positive view of the cardinal is impressive given the marks he received on clergy sexual abuse. "I would generally expect the cardinal to have a high favorability rating and a low unfavorability rating among Catholics. But given the problems that face the Catholic Church, it is to Cardinal Law's credit that Catholics still view him favorably," said pollster Gerry Chervinsky of KRC Communications Research.

As with a number of other issues in the survey, there was a gender gap on attitudes toward the cardinal. Fully 66 percent of the women polled had a favorable opinion of Cardinal Law while 49 percent of men held such a view.

Practicing Catholics were much more likely than lapsed Catholics to view him favorably.

The cardinal received mixed reviews on his handling of questions about sexual abuse. Twenty-five percent of respondents said his performance was excellent or good, 26 percent said it was adequate, and 35 percent said it was poor or terrible.

Lapsed Catholics or those who said their faith was not very important to them gave the cardinal slightly lower grades.

Sixty-one percent of Catholics said they disagreed with a statement issued on the cardinal's behalf by his lawyer, who said victims of clergy sexual abuse could turn to their parish priests for counseling. Only 30 percent said they agreed.

But a majority of Catholics said they agreed with the cardinal's criticism of news coverage of the issue. Fifty-four percent said they agreed when the cardinal said that "the papers like to focus on the faults of a few" and that "the good and dedicated people who serve the church deserve better than what they have been getting day in and day out in the media."

Only 35 percent of Catholics disagreed with his comments.

ATTITUDES DIVIDED ON ABORTION

Massachusetts Catholics are sharply divided on their church's position on abortion, according to a poll conducted by the Globe.

Of 401 Catholics surveyed by telephone, 41 percent said they agreed with their church's position on abortion, while 50 percent said they disagreed and 8 percent said they did not know.

The division was even deeper between practicing Catholics and lapsed Catholics. Among practicing Catholics, 55 percent agreed with the church position while 36 percent disagreed. Among lapsed Catholics only 20 percent agreed with the church abortion position while 69 percent disagreed.

The Catholic Church opposes abortion as the taking of innocent life, has lobbied for laws to prohibit or at least to regulate abortion, and has criticized political officials who support use of public funds for abortion or who support the right of individual women to choose abortion.

Men were more likely than women to oppose the church's position. Thirty- eight percent of men agreed with the church view while 52 percent disagreed. Among women, 43 percent agreed with the church and 48 percent disagreed.

Age also made a difference. Catholics under 40 were far more likely to disagree with the church, at 62 percent, than Catholics 65 and older, at 16 percent.

When Catholics were asked what impact the church's position would have on their course of action if they or a family member were ever to face an unwanted pregnancy, 22 percent said the church's position would have a significant impact, 27 percent said it would have some impact and 49 percent said it would have no impact.

A majority of Catholics said their church should not be politically active on the abortion issue. Just 35 percent said the church should be active, and 54 percent said it should not.

Catholics also disagreed over whether their church's position on abortion would have an impact on their decision to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights. Sixty percent said the church's position would have no impact, 14 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for a candidate supporting abortion rights, and 16 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for such a candidate.

HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED

The Boston Globe poll of Massachusetts Catholics was conducted July 20 and 21 by KRC Communications Research of Newton. The random telephone survey recorded the responses of 401 men and women over 18 who identified themselves as Catholic. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 7/26/1992.
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