The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Most Catholics in poll want a resignation

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/17/2002

A sizable majority of Boston-area Catholics surveyed now want Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign over his handling of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, according to a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll.

Sixty-five percent of those surveyed say Law should leave his job as archbishop of Boston, up from 48 percent in a Globe/WBZ poll taken in early February. Just 27 percent want him to stay, compared with 38 percent two months ago.

The poll provides no good news for the cardinal. A whopping 71 percent of Catholics in the archdiocese who were surveyed believe Law has done a poor job handling instances of sexual abuse of children by priests, and only 18 percent have a favorable opinion of their spiritual leader.

A majority - 53 percent - now say they have lost confidence in the Catholic Church as an institution because of the scandal, up from 43 percent in February.

''Opinion toward Cardinal Law continues to erode, and the more people know, the more they believe he needs to leave,'' said pollster Gerry Chervinsky. ''Clearly, people think he's done a poor job handling the issue, they don't accept his explanation with regard to record-keeping mistakes, and they believe the archdiocese would be better off with somebody else in charge.''

In an indication that the crisis could cause serious financial harm to the largest religious denomination in Massachusetts, 31 percent of area Catholics say they are now giving less money to the church, up from 18 percent in February, as a result of the scandal, which has led the local church to give prosecutors the names of nearly 100 priests accused of sexually abusing minors. The poll's finding comes amid reports that archdiocesan fund-raising in general has declined and that Catholic Charities is having difficulty raising money to help the poor.

But the poll suggests that, despite their unhappiness with the church's local leadership, Catholics are sticking by their religious beliefs and practice: 92 percent say their Christian faith has not been lessened, and 81 percent say their attendance at Mass has not decreased.

The archdiocese-wide telephone survey of 800 Catholic adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The poll was taken April 12-15, just after Law sent a letter to priests saying that ''my desire is to serve this archdiocese and the whole church with every fiber of my being. This I will continue to do as long as God gives me the opportunity.'' Law was in seclusion during the period the poll was taken - he has not been seen in public since last Tuesday, and he has not spoken with the news media for 65 days.

Law remains vastly more unpopular than church leaders above and below him. While just 18 percent of area Catholics view their cardinal favorably, 62 percent view Pope John Paul II favorably, and 75 percent view their local parish priest favorably. Those numbers are in keeping with national trends - the American bishops have suffered declining popularity in the decades since Vatican II - but are nonetheless striking given that Law refers to himself as the pastor, teacher, and father of local Catholics, and since the church teaches that ''the faithful must cling to their bishop.''

''I believe he was hiding crimes,'' said Michael A. Theriault, a 39-year-old Littleton carpenter, explaining why he told the pollster he wants Law to resign. ''It would send a message that this won't be tolerated. I can't understand why any Catholics are standing up for him - it's sad. He deserves no special treatment.''

The cardinal is viewed unfavorably by every subgroup of area Catholics - young, old, rich, poor, regardless of their frequency of Mass attendance. Whereas in February, Law's resignation was opposed by a majority of weekly communicants and Catholics over age 65, now a majority of weekly communicants want Law to quit and older Catholics are evenly split on his future.

But the cardinal does have his supporters.

''I really think he's always done a very good job, and has tried to help his flock, and we the people have always respected him and loved everything he did,'' said Yvonne H. Lavoie, an 88-year-old retired shop owner from Peabody. ''We're in a very sad situation, and if everyone can pull together, we can make this better.''

Even if Law does resign, local Catholics say that will not be enough to quell their anger. Eighty-seven percent of those who want Law to quit said that even if he resigns, other changes in the church will still be necessary, and 51 percent said other local bishops should leave as well.

Support for celibacy in the priesthood appears to have risen slightly since February, amidst widespread debate over whether celibacy is linked to clergy sexual abuse. Twenty-six percent of local Catholics now say they agree that priests should be celibate, up from 19 percent in February.

Over the last three months, Law has at times blamed bad medical advice, bad record-keeping, and an excessive focus on clergy sexual abuse as a moral failure rather than a criminal act for his decisions to allow accused priests to continue holding jobs in the church. He has apologized at two news conferences and from the pulpit, has met with priests, lay leaders, business leaders, and, according to his office, with victims, and has hired outside public relations consultants.

Law has also pledged to turn over names of all suspected priests, past and future, to prosecutors, has appointed a commission to review the church's clergy sexual abuse policies, has achieved a settlement of many lawsuits, and has restructured the church's offices for investigating allegations and responding to victims. He has promised to train church staff on how to recognize signs of sexual abuse. And he has tried to mend relations with a variety of groups, including priests and lay leaders.

But despite all those efforts, many Catholics are now less inclined to forgive Law than they were two months ago - just 40 percent want to forgive him, down from 51 percent in February.

Catholics clearly are not reserving their anger for abusive priests, but fault church leaders for their handling of the allegations. The poll found that 81 percent of Catholics believe church leaders have tried to cover up cases of sexual abuse of children by priests, and 64 percent believe they care more about protecting priests who have sexually abused children than helping the victims.

Even the pope's popularity in the Globe/WBZ poll has slipped slightly since February, when 70 percent viewed him favorably. Victims' advocates have criticized the Vatican for inaction on the clergy sexual abuse issue, although on Monday it confirmed that it would bring US cardinals to Rome to discuss the issue.

Public confidence in the steps Law has taken to address the problem is slipping - 43 percent now believe those policies are about right, down from 56 percent in February. And 51 percent are now very or somewhat confident Law will be able to implement his policies, down from 62 percent in February.

Also, 61 percent of those polled said they do not accept Law's argument, articulated in his letter to priests last week, that poor record-keeping was a significant part of the problem in the case of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley. Shanley was allowed to continue working as a priest despite documents in church files alleging that he had sexually abused minors.

Catholics show no signs of losing interest in the clergy sexual abuse scandal, which has dominated the local news media for months, has been on the cover of all the major national newsweeklies, and has been heavily covered by the national broadcast media. Sixty-one percent of Catholics say they are following the news stories very closely, up from 49 percent in February, while only 5 percent say they are not following the story closely at all. A majority of Catholics - 57 percent - say that Law only apologized because of stories in the news media.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/17/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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