U.S. Catholics' satisfaction with bishops leaped from 51 to 70 percent in the last decade, according to the Pew Forum. That's impressive, though it is hard to imagine a lower point than 2002, when Catholics saw a flood of news on clerical sexual abuse of minors. To copy Queen Elizabeth's description of 1992, when one of her sons divorced and Windsor Castle erupted in flames, 2002 was the church's Annus Horribilis.
Causes of the uptick may be many: steadfastness, action in a crisis and the bishops' courage to walk forth when they probably would have preferred to hide in a hole. Steadfastness in troubled times means serious leadership.
The Pew Forum measured current satisfaction with bishops against feelings a decade ago when the bishops faced the fact that sexual abuse of minors by clergy was a horrific reality in the church. The news had been simmering but broke out big time in Boston in January 2002. Six months later a few thousand media showed up at the bishops' June meeting in Dallas to see how the bishops would fix the problem.
To their credit, the bishops acted. They developed the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a 17-article promise to forthrightly confront child sexual abuse. They set up review boards comprised primarily of lay people to evaluate reported cases. They launched a massive educational campaign for professional staff and volunteers who work with minors and educated the minors themselves on appropriate interaction between themselves and adults. They established a compliance audit system for the Charter.
Today, as the Boy Scouts, Penn State and public and private schools address sexual abuse of minors in their ranks, people hear them promise to do what the church has already been doing for 10 years. They include enforcing prevention strategies, such as not allowing minors to be alone with adults on outings; conducting background checks to eliminate unsavory characters attracted to youth; and educating children and adults about principles of healthy interaction, including the kindergarten rule: keep your hands to yourself.
With media reports of sexual abuse in youth groups and in public and private schools, Catholics saw that abuse is a tragic human problem, but not one rooted in clerical celibacy or Catholicism. They saw that sexual abuse of minors crosses all levels of society and exists more often in the home than outside it. All of which started to calm their earlier justifiable rage at "the bishops."
The bishops' facing the problem led to Catholics' increased confidence. People find reassurance in results too, and, though any instance of abuse is reprehensible, there is hope in the fact that in the last audit period (2011) there were only seven accusations of minors molested by clerics deemed credible by law enforcement -- that in a church of 77.7 million U.S. Catholics. That's enough reason to make the satisfaction rate soar.
Other factors fed the uptick. Though shamed by the scandal, bishops remained bishops. They faced financial crises squarely, confirmed youth in parishes, led dioceses in prayer and held the line on church teaching in the public square. They now maintain the high satisfaction rate despite seeming to be the sole voice for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation.
The bishops have other positions that seem to please no one. For example, they still want universal health care -- they've sought it for decades -- with particular concern for the plight of the poor and protection of innocent and fragile lives. Ironically, though their quite broad positions would protect so many, their positions right now please so few.
The bishops may take some satisfaction in an approval rating of 70 percent, but raising poll numbers was never their goal. The year 2012 still presents challenges, especially in the area of sexual abuse, which demands constant vigilance and transparency. Pew numbers show, however, that people are with the bishops, which ought to be a measure of comfort in still trying times.
Follow Sister Mary Ann Walsh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/USCCB