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A Decade Later, Catholic Anger, Defections Over Abuse Not Letting Up

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Thousands of victims of sexual abuse will never receive a personal apology from their church leaders.

Many continue suffering into adulthood from the crimes of wayward clergy and the conspiracy of silence by religious hierarchs. Now, some will be offended even more by statements made by Cardinal Edward Egan.

The archbishop emeritus of New York recently expressed regret for issuing an apology at the height of the U.S. scandal, saying, "I don't think we did anything wrong."

Yet no matter how much individuals such as the cardinal would like to put the sexual abuse scandal behind them, they can no longer appeal to an obedient laity to ignore or downplay the crimes, according to new research.

Many Catholics are still mad as heck, and they are not going to take it anymore. It is not just the firestorm of disapproval that greeted Egan's remarks published earlier this month.

Consider some of these recent findings related to the enduring consequences of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church:

  • In a 2011 survey of American Catholics, more than three-quarters of respondents said the sexual abuse issue has hurt priests' ability to meet the spiritual-pastoral needs of parishioners.
  • In an online survey, anger at church leadership for the sexual abuse scandal was the No. 1 reason cited by people who left the church and are not coming back. Nearly two-thirds of respondents who are not even considering returning to the church listed the abuse scandal as a reason for leaving.
  • The scandal led to a loss of 2 million Catholics, and generated more than3 billion in donations to other faiths from those Catholics who joined other groups, economist Daniel Hungerman of Notre Dame University estimated in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Negative publicity from the scandal explains about 5 percent of the decline in the number of Catholic schools in the past two decades, researchers Angela K. Dills of Providence College and Rey Hernandez-Julian of the Metropolitan State College of Denver estimated in the journal Economic Inquiry.
And the outrage is not abating.

Anger Growing

The revelations in recent years of the global nature of the scandal are only inflaming the anger of rank-and-file Catholics, analysts say.

The Catholic abuse scandal became a national crisis for the church in 2002 following revelations of widespread wrongdoing in Boston, Cleveland and other areas of the country. By 2005, as the church responded with new rules and safeguards, many Catholics were willing to give bishops the benefit of the doubt, sociologist William D'Antonio of Catholic University of America said.

However, "Six years later, as the scandal continues and becomes worldwide, the laity seem much more distressed by it," said D'Antonio, who has led five major surveys of American Catholics since 1987. "The laity seems to be losing their patience."

In the 2011 study of 1,442 adult Catholics, 69 percent of respondents said the Catholic bishops have done a fair or poor job in handling accusations of sexual abuse by priests. More than four in five respondents said the issue has hurt church leaders' political credibility, reported researchers D'Antonio, Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and Michele Dillon of the University of New Hampshire.

Many Catholics may be lost for good.

In an online survey of Catholics who left the church, 20 percent of respondents who said they were returning to the church listed anger at church leadership over the sexual abuse scandal as one reason for their departure. Among those who say they are not returning, 64 percent said anger over the scandal was a reason they left.

"The scars of the sexual abuse crisis run deep" among those not returning to the church, said researcher Michael Cieslak of the Catholic Diocese of Rockford, Ill., who reported the results at the annual joint meeting of the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

In his work integrating data from several studies, Notre Dame's Hungerman found that many who left the Catholic Church chose highly different alternatives such as Baptist traditions. There were also indications about half may no longer be affiliated with any religious group.

"Over time, both non-affiliation and non-Catholic participation appear to have increased in areas hard-hit by the scandal," he reported.

'Live the Gospel'

It may hardly seem fair for the Catholic Church to be singled out when the problem of clergy sexual abuse crosses denominational and faith lines.

Young people have been and are being sexually abused in evangelical and mainline Protestant churches, in mosques and synagogues and temples. The initial response is largely the same: Religious leaders protect the institution, often angrily condemning or ignoring the victim lying wounded on the side of the road.

This is not just "a Catholic problem."

But downplaying the Catholic Church's own wrongdoing is not an effective response on any level, analysts say.

In an article in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, the Rev. Joseph Guido of Providence College states clergy abuse in the Catholic Church is a unique betrayal because the priest is regarded as an alter Christus, another Christ.

Bishops have even greater responsibility.

"A bishop must act in personae Christi -- in the person of Christ -- and care for his flock even at a price to himself (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, nos. 894-896). When he fails to do so, his failure constitutes a betrayal of the sacramental meaning of his authority and leaves his flock ... spiritual orphans."

D'Antonio's advice to church leaders is straightforward: "Live the Gospel."

The Gospels do not say much about retracting apologies. What they do say, in part, is: "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. ... Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

Hungerman, Hernandez-Julian and Dills are scheduled to present their latest research on the consequences of the abuse scandal at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture March 9-11 at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.