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Spotlight Report

Most Catholics in poll fault Law's performance

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/8/2002

 Poll results
Poll results
Catholics' opinions on...
Law and the priest abuse cases
The priesthood and church policy

Complete list of poll questions and results (Plain text file)

 Related stories
Catholics favor priesthood change

Most local Catholics believe that Cardinal Bernard F. Law has done a poor job dealing with clergy sexual abuse, and nearly half want him to resign as archbishop of Boston, according to a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll.

Forty-eight percent of area Catholics surveyed say Law should resign, 38 percent say he should not, while 14 percent had no opinion.

The poll also shows that local Catholics are making a clear distinction between their beliefs and practices as Catholics, which remain strong, and their assessment of Law's conduct, which is extraordinarily weak. They appear largely to have personalized their anger, criticizing the cardinal but saying that being upset with him has not affected their broader feelings about the church.

Among weekly churchgoers, who make up nearly 4 in 10 local Catholics, a majority fault Law for the way he has dealt with priest pedophiles, say the problem of sexual abuse by priests is more widespread than is currently known, and believe the church has covered up cases of misconduct by priests, the poll found.

In an illustration of the damage done to Law's reputation by the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the cardinal is viewed unfavorably by 51 percent of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston. By contrast, only 16 percent of local Catholics view Pope John Paul II unfavorably, and only 4 percent have an unfavorable view of their local parish priest.

The archdiocese-wide survey of 800 adult Catholics was taken by KRC/Communications Research Feb. 4-6. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Law, who has served as archbishop of Boston since 1984 and is now the senior American Catholic prelate, has twice declared that he does not intend to resign, saying most recently, in a Jan. 26 letter to area Catholics: ''I do not believe that submitting my resignation to the Holy Father is the answer to the terrible scourge of sexual abuse of children by priests.''

But the poll shows that a plurality of Law's flock would like to see him step down.

''He is standing before us as a teacher and a guide, and yet he knew this stuff and didn't do something about it right away,'' said Anneliese K. Larin, a 36-year-old Arlington homemaker who told pollsters she thought Law should resign. ''He knew it might hurt other people. Maybe he was under a lot of pressure, but I can't really give him a lot of credibility.''

Don Haska, a 61-year-old Charlestown computer consultant, said it is unfair to blame Law for the conduct of others.

''There's a lot of things I don't agree with Cardinal Law on, but I don't think he should take the fall for this,'' Haska said. ''He's done the best he can with a can of worms that was given to him. Even Jesus Christ couldn't keep Judas Iscariot from betraying him. These people broke their vow of chastity, not to the cardinal, but to God.''

Resignations by cardinals, which would have to be submitted to and approved by the pope, are extremely rare.

Law's support is strongest among weekly churchgoers and Catholics over age 65, with a majority of each of those groups opposing his resignation. But a majority of Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week, as well as of Catholics who are affluent, male, or under age 65, want him to quit.

Law has been under fire for a month, since the Globe Spotlight Team reported details of the case of John J. Geoghan, who over three decades as a priest was shuffled from parish to parish by church leaders, including Law, who knew Geoghan was a pedophile. Last week, the Globe reported that the archdiocese has settled molestation claims against more than 70 priests over the last decade.

And Law, after asserting several times over the last month that there is no priest working in the archdiocese who is known to have sexually abused children, ousted two priests over the weekend after acknowledging there were allegations of sexual abuse against them. He ousted six other priests yesterday for the same reason.

Local Catholics, regardless of age, income, and level of observance, are unhappy with how the church has dealt with priest pedophiles.

A significant majority - 64 percent - say leaders of the Catholic Church care more about protecting priests who have abused children than helping people who were sexually abused by priests. And 78 percent of local Catholics believe church leaders have tried to cover up cases of sexual abuse by priests.

Law has done a poor job dealing with instances of sexual abuse of children in the eyes of 58 percent of local Catholics, and another 16 percent rate his performance on the problem as fair. The cardinal gets mediocre ratings when it comes to every other aspect of his job performance: He is doing a fair or poor job as administrator of the archdiocese in the opinion of 58 percent of local Catholics; as a spiritual leader, according to 53 percent of local Catholics; and as an advocate for church teachings, according to 47 percent of local Catholics.

The unfavorable view of Law is significant given the Catholic Church's emphasis on the importance of fealty to bishops, an emphasis that is largely without parallel in other mainstream religious denominations. The church teaches that bishops such as Law are the divinely instituted successors to Jesus's apostles, and the church's dogmatic constitution, approved at the Second Vatican Council, declares that ''the faithful must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father.''

One bright spot for Law, perhaps reflecting Christianity's strong emphasis on the importance of forgiveness: 51 percent of Catholics say Law made a mistake in dealing with sexual abuse, but that after his sincere apology, he should be forgiven. That willingness to forgive Law, who has repeatedly apologized for ''tragically incorrect'' decisions regarding Geoghan, comes despite the fact that 62 percent of Catholics believe Law only apologized because of stories in the news media.

Over the last several weeks, Law has announced several new policies regarding clergy sexual abuse. He has said the church will report allegations of sexual abuse by priests to law enforcement - and has turned over the names of 40 priests to local district attorneys. He also has promised to train clergy and staff to look for warning signs that children are being abused, and to continue to offer pastoral care to victims and their families.

A majority of Catholics, 56 percent, say the church's new policies are about right, while 35 percent say they don't go far enough, and 3 percent say the policies go too far. More than 6 in 10 Catholics say they have some confidence that Law will be able to implement the new policies.

Despite the clergy sexual abuse scandal, Catholics say their faith and their levels of religious observance remain unchanged. The percentage of self-identified Catholics who told the Globe pollsters they go to church once a week or more - 39 percent - is higher than the archdiocese's own estimates of the percentage of Catholics who comply with the church requirement for weekly Mass attendance.

Law has publicly fretted about the impact of the scandal on Christian faith, writing in his letter to Catholics that ''Faith has been shaken and relationships of affection and trust between the faithful and clergy have been frayed in some cases.''

But the poll suggests that both faith and the admiration Catholics have for their local pastors has remained strong - it is their attitude toward Law himself that has changed.

Ninety-one percent of Catholics say that their faith as Christians has not been diminished by the clergy sexual abuse crisis; 83 percent say they have not reduced the frequency of Mass attendance; 78 percent say they have not reduced their financial donations to the church; and 52 percent say they have not lost confidence in the church as an institution.

Nonetheless, some of the figures may be troubling for the church, which is now trying to raise $300 million in a capital campaign and is about to launch the annual Cardinal's Appeal, another fund-raising effort. Nearly 1 in 5 Catholics say they are donating less money to the church as a result of the clergy sexual abuse.

The church's approach to clergy sexual abuse is clearly an important issue to local Catholics, 49 percent of whom say they are following news stories about the subject very closely, and another 43 percent of whom say they have been following the stories somewhat closely. Twenty-two percent of Catholics say the news media have given too much coverage to the sexual abuse story, while a majority say the amount of coverage is about right.

Nearly 25 percent of Catholics believe the news media are biased against the Catholic Church, while 64 percent do not.

Law, who attacked media coverage of another pedophile priest, James R. Porter, in 1992, has not criticized media coverage in recent weeks. In fact, on Jan. 9 he declared that ''today the issue of sexual abuse is a matter of open and public discussion.''

But some Catholics clearly believe that media coverage has been unfair; in today's issue of The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, editor Antonio Enrique argues that ''while there may be many truthful elements in those reports, they are being used to diminish the moral authority of the church. Let's not be naive about this - the church is the main supporter of pro-family, pro-life, and pro-poor related issues. The church's moral standing challenges some very powerful agendas in our society.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 2/8/2002.
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