03/06/2013 07:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sex Abuse Biggest Problem In Catholic Church, U.S. Catholics Say In New Surveys

While the College of Cardinals meets to discuss the priorities of the Roman Catholic Church and select a new pope, a new survey shows that American Catholics see sex abuse by clergy as the church's biggest problem.

A survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked U.S. Catholics to describe the problems facing the church and found that 34 percent thought the most important was sexual abuse. No other issue, including lower church attendance and loss of faithful youth, got more than 10 percent of responses in the survey.

Conducted between Feb. 28 and March 3 among 184 Catholics, the poll also asked about the church's positive role in society. Twenty-seven percent of U.S. Catholics surveyed said the church's role in helping the poor, sick and needy was the most important, helpful work it does.

The strengths and weaknesses of the church are being closely examined as cardinals gather this week for General Congregations ahead of the conclave, which will select the pope to succeed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. All cardinals younger than 80 can vote in the conclave, which leaves 115 voters, though a date for conclave has not been set.

During interviews in the weeks before a media blackout that began Wednesday, cardinals have discussed the next pope's priorities, including combating rising secularism, reexamining the sex abuse scandals and managing the internal politics of the curia (the priests that make up the church's Vatican-based leadership).

At the same time, using surveys, petitions, posters and events in Rome and elsewhere, Catholics and others also have tried to influence the papal selection process.

One prominent group of sex abuse victims' advocates, the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, released a list on Wednesday of the "dirty dozen," the cardinals it says are the worst picks for pope. In another survey released Wednesday by The New York Times and CBS News, seven of 10 U.S. Catholics said Benedict handled sexual abuse crises poorly and called it the biggest issue in the church. Most said his decision to resign was a good idea, and that they wanted a younger and more liberal pope.

An earlier HuffPost/YouGov poll also found that 24 percent of U.S. Catholics want an American pope. At least two Americans, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, are rumored to be distant candidates for the papacy. In that survey, nearly one-third of Catholics either said Benedict's resignation will help the church or be a "mixed blessing."

A recent Washington Post-ABC poll also found that just over half of Americans and almost two in three American Catholics approved of Benedict's performance. Those figures are lower than predecessor John Paul II's ratings.

News organizations surveyed Americans in 2004 and found that 67 percent approved of John Paul II then, including 87 percent of American Catholics. Separately from the survey released Wednesday, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also recently polled American Catholics, finding that John Paul II's ratings were higher than Benedict's.

Click through the slideshow to see most and least Catholic states in the United States:

Most and Least Catholic States In America