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Views from Catholics in the Pews on Clergy Sex abuse

Three new polls on the views in the pews show that Catholics have been paying close attention. And most give their leaders poor marks in their response to the problem of clergy sex abuse.

In the Pew poll, 2,002 adult Americans were questioned about whether they felt Catholic leaders had "mostly tried to cover up the problem" of clergy sex abuse or "mostly tried to deal with the problem."

Sixty-two percent said most had tried to cover up, while 26 percent said they had tried to deal with the problem, 3 percent said both, and 9 percent said they didn't know or refused to answer. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Pew broke down the responses by race and religion and divided respondents into "high commitment" and "low commitment" categories, depending on their church attendance and involvement and frequency of prayer. It defined as "secular" those who described themselves as atheists, agnostics or nonreligious.

Nearly half (49 percent) of high-commitment white Catholics and 63 percent of low-commitment white Catholics thought church leaders had covered up the problem, as did 75 percent of the secular respondents.

Asked how much they had heard about the recent criminal trials related to clergy sex abuse, 85 percent of all respondents -- and 91 percent of Catholics -- said they had heard a lot or a little. High-commitment Catholics were following the story most closely, with 54 percent saying they had heard a lot.

The Zogby poll -- a joint venture with Jesuit-run LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. -- was conducted between March 12 and March 16 of 1,507 U.S. Catholics nationwide. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.8 percent points.

Asked to rate church leaders' efforts to deal with the issue of clergy sex abuse, 51 percent of Catholics said the response had been "poor" and 23 percent said it had been "fair." Only 21 percent gave a positive rating to their leaders, with 5 percent judging the response "excellent" and 16 percent rating it "good." The rest said they were not sure.

Even a majority (56 percent) of Catholics who attend Mass every day gave the church a negative rating for its handling of the crisis, noted John Zogby, president of the Utica, N.Y.-based Zogby International. "Those responses demonstrate the real depth of the problem in underscoring a potential lack of trust on this issue among the most ardent Catholics."

About one-fifth of all Catholics said a priest in their diocese had been publicly accused of committing child sex abuse, while 75 percent said they did not know of any cases in their diocese. Only 9 percent of Catholics said they had any personal knowledge of alleged clergy sex abuse.

The Zogby survey showed a sharp decline in the approval rating for U.S. bishops since October 2001. The percentage of Catholics who strongly or somewhat agreed that the bishops were doing a good job in leading the church fell from 84percent five months ago to 68percent today.

In the Gallup poll conducted March 18-24 among 522 U.S. Catholics, 72percent said the church had done "a bad job in dealing with the problem of sexual abuse committed by its priests," while only 20 percent felt it had done a good job. In August 1993, the last time Gallup asked the question, 53 percent said the church had done a bad job and 35 percent said a good job.

In a separate question, 74 percent said the church was more concerned with protecting its own image, while 17 percent said its biggest concern was to solve the problem of clergy sex abuse.

The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 0.5 percentage points.