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Spotlight Report


Catholics want change, poll finds

Seek archbishop open to new ideas

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/11/2003

 Related stories
Most in poll would prosecute Law
Loyalty seen vital in new leader
Lennon is given mixed grades

Poll results
Changing views, 1992-2003
Boston Catholics and their church

 Expanded results
All poll questions and answers

 Previous polls
The Globe has polled Boston Catholics concerning clergy sexual abuse on three previous occasions.

April 2002
Story and results

February 2002
Story and results

July 1992
Story and results

Boston-area Catholics, increasingly alienated by the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked the church, say the characteristic they would most like to see in a new archbishop is openness to change, according to a new Boston Globe poll.

Overwhelming majorities of Catholics living in the Archdiocese of Boston still have favorable opinions of their own parish priests and of Pope John Paul II, and 41 percent say their faith is very important to their everyday lives.

But nearly one in five Catholics say they have considered joining a non-Catholic church over the past year, and 39 percent say they would support an American Catholic church that is independent of the Vatican. Majorities say they want the church to embrace more "modern" attitudes on social issues and they want the next archbishop to be more collaborative with laypeople and priests.

The poll found that despite a number of efforts by the archdiocese to address the crisis, including the ouster of several dozen allegedly abusive priests, new abuse prevention programs in all parishes, and a five-week Lenten healing and reconciliation program, 62 percent of area Catholics now say the abuse crisis has caused them to lose confidence in their church as an institution. That number is actually higher than it was before the archdiocese began to respond to the crisis, and it has grown steadily over the last 11 years, starting with revelations that a Fall River priest, James R. Porter, was a serial pedophile, and escalating since last year, when the Globe revealed details of the church's mishandling of the case of the Rev. John J. Geoghan, another serial pedophile, and dozens of other Boston-area priests.

The poll points to a number of challenges facing the next archbishop of Boston, who will be chosen by the pope to replace Cardinal Bernard F. Law. The archdiocese is currently being managed by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, an interim administrator named by the pope when Law resigned last December.

The ranks of local Catholics who say the abuse crisis has caused them to donate less money to the church continue to grow, with 44 percent putting themselves in that category now, up from 31 percent in an April 2002 Globe poll. Other indicators of alienation have also trended upward: 27 percent say the crisis has caused them to attend Mass less regularly; 18 percent say it has caused them to lose faith as a Christian; and 18 percent of those with children say they are now less likely to encourage their children to practice Catholicism. Those numbers have been reflected in the pews and the collection baskets: Church officials say attendance has dropped 14 percent, and the revenue from the church's annual fund-raising appeal dropped 47 percent, from 2001 to 2002.

Complete results of this poll, along with results from previous surveys, will be available online tomorrow. "I used to give to the Cardinal's Appeal and to go to his Garden Party [fund-raiser], but now I absolutely would not send money and my husband would have a fit if I did," said Nancy Nee Hanifin, 41, of Jamaica Plain, a title examiner who attends weekly Mass and teaches religious education at Infant Jesus-St. Lawrence Church in Brookline. "That's the only way they're going to get the message," she said in a follow-up interview. "They didn't care about the children, and this is the only way they're going to change. I see a schism between us and the chancery."

The Boston Globe poll was conducted by telephone from May 4 through May 6 by KRC/Communications Research, and involved 400 self-identified Catholics living in the Archdiocese of Boston. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Although it has been five months since Law's resignation and 16 months since the scandal began, the poll suggests that alienation from the church is accelerating, and not dissipating as many church officials had hoped. Fifty-three percent say that "modernizing church attitudes on social issues," an item that does not appear on Lennon's agenda and is rarely discussed by bishops or cardinals, would be the step most likely to bring them closer to the church.

"I have two kids, and my daughter is asking me questions I can't answer, like why can't a woman be a priest," said Jeff Bard, 45, a marketing consultant from Rowley who says he attends Mass at St. Mary Church three of every four Sundays. Bard cited "openness to change" as his top priority for the church, and explained that by change he means ordaining women and married men, and dropping the prohibition on the use of artificial birth control.

"The Catholic Church for so long has relied upon dogma, and hasn't kept up with the times, and as society has become more open and encompassing of all, the church has stayed in its own staid pattern," Bard said. "I used to accept that, but when the crisis hit, it shook everybody up, and maybe now, instead of us always answering to them, maybe they should answer to us." But a minority of those polled say the church has already changed too much, and the crisis is proof.

"I don't see any need for change, and as a matter of fact, I think there's been too much change," said Muriel F. Finn of Quincy, who said she is in her mid-80s and is a weekly communicant at St. John the Baptist Church. "I don't agree with these so-called liberal Catholics at all. The point is that the priests who have done the molestation are homosexuals, and they pulled the wool over the eyes of the priests in charge, and Cardinal Law didn't realize how serious things were."

A plurality of local Catholics say the requirement of priestly celibacy is the primary cause of clergy sexual abuse. An overwhelming 86 percent majority of local Catholics -- the highest ever in a Globe poll -- say they would now support allowing priests to marry, and 80 percent, another record in Globe polling, say they would support the ordination of women as priests. The support for the ordination of women and married men cuts across all demographic categories -- even among weekly communicants and senior citizens.

Asked to describe the ideal relationship between an archbishop and his flock, a majority chose a middle ground, saying that the archbishop should not simply lead or simply follow, but should respond to the views of priests and laypeople to set a cooperative course.

An explanation for the crisis often put forward by some conservative Catholics -- that there are too many gay men in the priesthood and those gay men have molested adolescent boys -- finds little support from local Catholics. Only 9 percent say homosexuality in the priesthood is the primary cause of the abuse crisis, 59 percent say they would oppose prohibiting gay men from the priesthood, and 61 percent say they disagree with the church's position on homosexuality.

Although a significant plurality of local Catholics cited "openness to change" as the most important quality they would like to see in their next archbishop, those polled seem skeptical about the likelihood that the pope will choose someone who meets their goals. Just 18 percent said they were very confident that the pope will name an archbishop with the qualities they think are important.

But most local Catholics surveyed also said they do not see the new archbishop as a key factor in their faith.

And of the 400 Catholics interviewed, 35 percent said they go to Mass at least once a week, which, if true, means the Globe sample is more devout than the actual Catholic population. The last archdiocesan census, taken in October, found fewer than 300,000 of 2.1 million Catholics in church on Sunday, making actual weekly attendance less than 15 percent.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/11/2003.
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