After more than a year of media headlines dominated by Catholic sexual abuse scandals, NBC News in Washington has conducted a new survey with “insiders” in the Catholic Church, which shows that most believe the crisis has been handled well by their dioceses, and that abuse is no more common in the Church than in other organizations.
Conducted with priests, members of religious orders and lay employees of the Catholic Church, the survey was done by the News4 I-Team in Washington, who partnered with several NBC-owned stations throughout the country.
A 26-question survey was sent to more than 32,000 people around the country. It was conducted on Survey Monkey Oct. 18-Nov. 14, and during that time, some 2,700 people sent responses, including more than 400 priests, 240 nuns, and nearly 1,900 lay employees. Most responses were given by women who work in the Church.
The survey comes in the aftermath of the scandals surrounding ex-cardinal and ex-priest Theodore McCarrick, who was removed from office for abusing minors and harassing young seminarians, as well as the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church.
Questions in the NBC survey touched on everything from opinions about Pope Francis and his stance on social issues, church administration, women, gay marriage and the abuse crisis.
Published Nov. 22, the results of the survey show that nuns, religious brothers and priests in religious orders emerged as the most progressive groups, showing more openness than others to the married priesthood, women’s ordination and the use of birth control.
According to results, when it comes to the clerical abuse scandals, some 82 percent said they believed that their parish had handled the issue appropriately.
An overall 46 percent of respondents said sexual abuse and misconduct is no more of a problem in the Church than it is in other fields that involve care of children.
Nuns and religious brothers were more likely than diocesan priests and lay employees to say abuse was still a major problem for the Church.
A majority of those surveyed, about 69 percent, said there had been no suspicions of inappropriate behavior regarding a priest or other person of trust in their parish or organization. Of those who said there had been suspicion, half said that the suspicion dated back at least 20 years, while just 14 percent said there had been suspicions in the last five years.
The overall majority of those surveyed, 64 percent, said they thought media coverage of the abuse scandals has been unfair.
Sex abuse in the Church entered the headlines again with the August 2018 publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, which found credible allegations of more than 300 “predator priests” in six dioceses that were investigated and more than 1,000 child victims going back to 1947. However, most cases happened before the early 2000s.
In a lengthy, 12,000-word essay published in Commonweal in January, journalist Peter Steinfels took issue with the presentation of the facts in the report.
Steinfels, a former New York Times reporter, retired editor of Commonweal magazine and a retired professor at Fordham University, argued that the report largely ignored the diocesan records and misrepresented the Church’s actions in the report’s 12-page introduction, on which most media based their reporting.
He insisted that if looked at objectively, the evidence in the report suggests that policies instituted in 2002 by the U.S. Church, known as the Dallas Charter, have worked, even if there is still room for improvement.
In NBC’s survey, participants were also asked whether they would allow their children to go on an overnight retreat that was supervised by clergy or another person of trust in their parish or organization. Most either said no, or a tentative yes, but only with proper chaperones.
Some 48 percent said they would allow their children to go, and of these, it was mostly lay employees of the Church.
In terms of the handling of the abuse crisis by individual dioceses, no specific statistics were available for individual groups, but the majority of those surveyed, 78 percent, said they believed that their diocese has provided children the protection they deserve, and 47 percent said victims had been given justice.
Yet the numbers were far lower when it came to trust issues, with just 29 percent of those surveyed saying trust had been restored.
Most said they believed victims who come forward are telling the truth, however, a significant portion, 36 percent, said they believed that while the majority of survivors are telling the truth, there is a small number who make up stories for financial gain.
Religious brothers were the only individual group who were more likely to say there were some made up stories than they were to say most survivors were mostly telling the truth.
Looking at the diminished numbers of priest in the United States, those who said the decline is due to the abuse crisis were a minority. Just over half of those surveyed said they believed this was due to a general decline in religious observance among Catholics, while just 10 percent, said the drop was due to the scandals.
When asked about more contentious questions, all groups appeared unanimously to think the Church ought to consider ordaining married priests, with some 65 percent saying the issue ought to be studied further, and just 34 percent saying that the matter has been settled as a firm no.
On this issue, nuns were most in favor at 82 percent, though between 60-80 percent of those surveyed in all other groups agreed.
This issue recently came up during the October Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, during which participants in their final document summarizing the month-long discussion proposed the ordination of “proven men” in indigenous communities in the Amazon to help curb a priest shortage. The document established parameters for their ordination of these men, which Pope Francis will either approve or reject.
When asked in the NBC survey whether the Catholic Church should recognize same-sex marriages as “non-sacramental unions” and allow individuals in these relationships to receive communion, most – 56 percent – said no. Nuns and religious brothers were the only groups with a majority who said the issue needed further study.
On women, some 59 percent of those surveyed said the Church should consider ordaining women as permanent deacons – something currently being studied by a special commission set up by Francis.
All groups, apart from diocesan priests, said the topic of women deacons needs further study. Unsurprisingly, it was the nuns who were the greatest supporters of the measure, at 81 percent.
When it came to women’s ordination to the priesthood, there was less support. Around 57 percent said the issue was closed; however, nuns, religious brothers and priests in religious orders were more likely to say that the question should be studied more.
It was also these three groups that were more likely to say the Church should consider allowing the use of birth control.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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