Poll shows Canadian Catholics believe Church has poorly handed sexual abuse crisis

28 May 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

A new Angus Reid Institute poll released May 28 reveals Canadian Catholics believe the Church has poorly handed the sexual abuse crisis and see more lay involvement as a positive move.

“The sexual abuse scandal has weakened perceptions of the Catholic Church in the United States and around the world, and this survey finds that Canada is no exception,” the pollster said.

“Most Canadians (55 per cent) say their opinion of the Catholic Church has been weakened by the clerical sexual abuse problem.”

Even among practising Catholics, who tend to view the Church more positively, 52 per cent say the Church is doing a poor or very poor job of handling the crisis. Among Canadians as a whole, those saying the Church has done a poor job rockets to 78 per cent. Among former Catholics, 93 per cent say so.

Pope Francis, however, fares better than the Church as a whole when it comes to Catholics view of his role in dealing with clerical sexual abuse.

Sixty-nine per cent of practising Catholics say the pope is doing a good or very good job. Canadians overall have a somewhat improved view of Pope Francis, but still a majority (60 per cent) say he is doing a poor or very poor job.

“Many Catholics, including – arguably – Pope Francis himself, see a key cause of the problem in the rise of ‘clericalism,’ a term that refers to the primacy of ordained people in the management structure of the Church,” the pollster said.

The poll shows a majority of practising Catholics believe there is adequate room for lay people to be involved in the Church’s administration (64 per cent see this at the parish level; 54 per cent at the level of the Church as a whole),

Michel MacDonald, executive director of the Catholic Organization for Life and Family sees lay involvement in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis itself as a key element in changing perceptions.

The pollster points out a “sizeable minority of practicing Catholics (31 per cent) and an even larger number of occasional Catholics (45 per cent) are less than satisfied with Francis on this issue.”

“Pope Francis has made a positive step forward in how the Church responds to cases of sexual abuse with his recent motu proprio Vos estis lux mund,” MacDonald said.

“I believe, however, that the document would better allay the concerns of persons who do not consider the Church is doing enough with regard to sexual abuse if it was more explicit or mandated in a clearer manner the inclusion of competent lay persons in the whole process.”

“Vos estis, Article 13, does mention the possibility of the involvement of lay faithful who are qualified but it also states that the Metropolitan is ‘is free to choose other equally qualified persons’ that is, he is not bound to have lay persons involved in the process,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald pointed out the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) 2018 document Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation does “recommend in several places the involvement of the lay faithful in the process of dealing with claims of sexual abuse.”

“These include such things as instituting an interdisciplinary committee, seeking ‘the input of parents, civil authorities, educators, and community organizations in crafting diocesan policies,’ and ‘involving the Catholic faithful who are ready to minister in a spirit of co-responsibility,’” MacDonald said.

“Has the Catholic Church done enough with regard to the current sex abuse crisis?” MacDonald asked. “It has made a start, but I don’t think that the bishops can ‘go it alone.’ In my opinion, the response to this crisis must include competent lay faithful at all levels of the process.”

The study showed the scandal has “not caused a crisis of faith in Canada today,” even though it has “done notable damage to Canadian Catholics’ opinions of their Church.”

“While some of this damage is almost certainly the result of concerns Canadians have about incidents of abuse that took place elsewhere in the world, it’s notable that one-in-three practicing Catholics say their local Church community has had problems with clerical sexual abuse over the years.”

“Ultimately, this is an issue that the Catholic Church in Canada will need to effectively address and move on from if it hopes to recover,” the Angus Reid Institute said.

“Most Canadians, and many practicing Catholics, say they expect the Church to emerge from this issue weakened as an institution.”

The poll shows 62 per cent of practicing Catholics believe the Church is “being more open but still guarded” in its handling of the abuse crisis; while 23 per cent see the Church as “now being as open and up front as possible.”

Yet, the pollster said response to this question had the most variance according to demographics and regions.

The view that the Church is still covering things up as much as possible is strongest in Atlantic Canada, where 54 per cent feel this way,” the Angus Reid Institute said.

“In every other region, larger numbers choose the middle option on this question.”

“Similarly, there is significant disagreement on this question between age and gender groups, with men under age 35 overwhelmingly seeing the church as being “more open” (62 per cent say this), while a majority of women their age (54 per cent) see the church “still covering things up as much as possible.”

While the poll shows that only Muslims have a negative net favourability rating (22 per cent) by Canadians, it shows the net favourability (percentage of positive views minus percentage of negative views) of Canadians towards Roman Catholics has dropped 10 per cent from 2015 to 2019 (36 per cent to 26 per cent), while the negative view of Muslims has declined from 29 per cent in 2015.

The poll shows 38 per cent of Canadians identity as Roman Catholics, larger than all other religious groups combined; and 24 per cent have no religious identity. Most Catholics, however, are found in Quebec, where most only attend religious services occasionally, the poll shows.