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Posted November 8, 2003

Catholics in Survey Seek Accountability by Church

By Laurie Goodstein
Published: November 7, 2003

Three of every four Roman Catholics who regularly attend Mass say they want their church to be more financially accountable in the wake of its sexual-abuse crisis, according to a new Gallup survey, and one in four say they did not respond this year to financial appeals from the national church.

But the survey also suggests that many Catholics who were angry about the scandal last year have begun to change their attitudes toward their local bishops. Forty-nine percent of the respondents said they felt that the bishops were doing a "good job" in handling the scandal, which is up from 35 percent last year.

Most also said they had not reduced donations to their parishes or local dioceses and bishops.

"They're blaming the bishops as a group rather than their own individual bishop," said Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, an association of philanthropists, which commissioned the survey.

"They're making distinctions, cutting contributions to things that originate at the bishops conference, whereas things that originate at the diocese or the parish get a more positive reaction," Mr. Butler said in an interview.

The survey, conducted in October by the Gallup Organization, polled the same Catholics who answered some of the same questions in a similar Gallup survey last year. The poll last year included 656 parishioners, of whom 309 responded this year. The margin of error when comparing the two polls is plus or minus seven percentage points, because the group of respondents is small.

It has been nearly two years since the sexual-abuse scandal involving priests first made national headlines in Boston, and the Gallup polls are the most detailed publicly available polls to gauge Catholic donors' opinions over the last two years.

The bishops say they are still instituting the policies they enacted in June 2002 to apprehend and discipline child molesters among the clergy. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Washington next week.

Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the conference, said that while some fund-raising appeals by the national church showed a slight drop in donations last year, others had slight increases. Among the national collections are the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Catholic Communications Collection and the American Bishops Overseas Appeal, Monsignor Maniscalco said.

The survey results found that 75 percent of Catholics said the church should be more accountable on financial issues.

Charles E. Zech, an economics professor at Villanova University who analyzed the survey results, said in an interview that "folks still want accountability."

"That hasn't dissipated, even with the sexual-abuse story off the front page," he said.

And two-thirds of those polled agreed in both years that "each diocesan bishop should give a full accounting of the financial costs and settlements arising from the sexual abuse by priests."

The bishops have commissioned a study to find the extent of sexual abuse in the church and how much dioceses paid in settlements and legal fees. That study should be released in February, Monsignor Maniscalco said.

"The bishops are open to greater accountability," he said, "and they are in agreement with the laity that it is important to the church."