Study: 3% of Catholics left over the sex abuse scandals

Study: 3% of Catholics left over the sex abuse scandals November 15, 2011

An interesting observation, from the New York Times (h/t Marcel):

survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted in 2008 found that Americans who had left Catholicism had done so for many reasons, including unhappiness with the church’s position on abortion or homosexuality, disagreement with teachings on birth control, and the feeling that their spiritual needs were not being met. But the survey also found that about a quarter of those saying they had abandoned Catholicism cited sexual abuse by members of the clergy as a reason for either leaving religion altogether or affiliating with a different denomination.

new study by Daniel M. Hungerman, an economist at the University of Notre Dame, estimates that the Catholic Church in the United States lost about two million members — or 3 percent of its American membership — because of the sexual abuse scandals, and that donations to other religious groups rose by $3 billion in the five years after the first significant news reports of the abuses.

Using data from the Official Catholic Directory, the General Social Survey (which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago), the Pew Forum and the Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Hungerman concludes that disaffected Catholics who have cited the abuse scandals as a primary reason for leaving the church have joined denominations that — unlike, say, the Episcopal Church — are not necessarily very similar to Catholicism.

In fact, Mr. Hungerman’s analysis concludes that Southern Baptists, as well as other denominations quite different from Catholicism, have gained a notable number of new members who fled the Catholic Church. “It could be that Catholics came to associate the scandal with some constellation of attributes provided by the Catholic Church, and so defecting Catholics sought out groups with entirely different attributes,” Mr. Hungerman wrote.

The Pew Forum data cited by Mr. Hungerman showed that of those who left Catholicism because of the abuse scandals, 6 percent converted to a Baptist church and 17 percent converted to “other Christian” churches, defined as separate from the “mainline” Protestant denominations like the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, which drew 8 percent of those Catholics disaffected by the scandals. Only 2 percent joined Episcopalian congregations.

Of course, Catholics may have joined another denomination for entirely different reasons. Instead of making a protest decision, they may simply have changed churches because of geography, the influence of friends, availability of children’s programs and other pastoral services and the atmosphere in a particular community.

In fact, the largest group of people who left Catholicism as a result of the scandals were the 51 percent who were “unaffiliated” with any religion, according to the Pew data. That is very similar to the 54 percent of lapsed Catholics who became unaffiliated simply because they had “drifted away” from their faith.

You can read his full report here.

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36 responses to “Study: 3% of Catholics left over the sex abuse scandals”

  1. So the Eucharist, The Body of Christ, did not fulfill their spiritual needs. Interesting. So they left for churches that do not have the Eucharist. Interesting.
    Wonder what they thought the Church and the Eucharist were in the first place?

  2. I’m surprised it’s just 3% (due allowances for self-reporting biases, etc). I would have thought it would be higher, as it is such a socially-acceptable reason for leaving an organization that makes such uncomfortable demands on members to begin with. Gotta think about this one some more. Interesting.

  3. I doubt that those who left the church and became “unaffiliated” left solely because of the scandals. If they now reject faith all together it was more likely the last straw after a long separation.
    We really do need to reach out to these people.

  4. RomCath: Very well said.

    In my humble opinion, anyone who “truly” believes in the Eucharist could never leave it. Catholics should be drawn closer to Him in the Eucharist especially in times of trial, persecution or scandal. I believe (without evidence of course and with hearfelt sorrow) those who leave were never really there. After all, if “All” Catholics believed in the Eucharist, the churches would overflow. It is the fundamental option now just as it was in John 6. Very distressing.

  5. Yes, one would think in times of trial or difficulty, people would turn to the Church and the Eucharist not away from it. What were they thinking?? Makes one wonder as ECB said if they were ever there at all.
    Most people I now who have left did so because they married after a divorce with no annulment. When the Church wouldn’t cowtow to their demands (as if they could or would), they became some flavor of Protestant, usually Episcopal.
    Rather strange that some as the article notes became Baptist.

  6. The aversion to the Episcopal church for a number of folks may be due to that church ordaining women and practicing homosexuals to its clergy. This would make the Baptist denomination more appealing for many conservative leaning folks leaving the Catholic church. This would be highly dependent on which particular Episcopal versus Baptist congregations exist in a geographical area.

  7. I wonder if the study analyzed the dioceses of the respondents. I would suspect that the number of Catholics who have left over the sex abuse scandal would be highest in places like Boston and Philadelphia.

    With respect to leaving the Church and the Eucharist: I know a Philadelphian who is a devout Catholic and is outraged over the sex abuse scandal and cover-up. Did she leave the church of her youth? No way. She told me she just doesn’t contribute to the diocesan yearly collection. She gives her money to missionaries and programs for the homeless, etc.

  8. Sad, sad, sad. To those who left, we love you. The Church is trying to make amends. Please give us another chance. Human failings does not change the fact that we are Christ’s Church.

  9. So they left for Protestantism, which an insurance industry report out of Boston claimed has 2-3x the prevalence of sexual abuse as the Catholic Church.


  10. Trying to make amends? Maybe, and debatable at best.

    Succeeding at doing so? Not even close.

    These scandals have been documented to have been ongoing for decades. They have possibly been happening for longer than that.

    I don’t blame those who left. There has been plenty of time to make amends. The perpetrators of child abuse, those covering up child abuse, and the system that allows it to happen all need to be exposed. It becomes Christ’s Church in name, as well as in fact, when the issue is admitted to and dealt with in a no-nonsense, no-excuse, no-alibi way. Until then the headlines will continue because the offenses will continue.

    No — no more chances are possible for those having left. The challenge is to stop others from also concluding that they aren’t going to give the church “one more chance” either.

  11. In my humble opinion many who left are those who have been lured away by anti-catholic organizations promising to obtain compensation if they allow themselves to be set-up as sex-abuse victims… I mean such claims are simply springing up like mushrooms in season. After all we hear claims of women who allegedly have been abused by their PP when a child, now they are happily married mothers- Did they bring up the matter of being abused simply to explain their loss of virginity to a devout spouse-to-be??? Besides, I thought one needed concrete proof of abuse, not just the word of mouths decades after the alleged event?

  12. Jake: I believe our church may be the only institution that has recognized is failings in regards to sexual abuse and is working to resolve them in a universal manner. Settlements are paid out in a timely manner when victims come forward, new procedures have been put into effect that allows the church to more quickly react to new accusations and address them (as in removing definitively suspected perpetrators) and there is on going support and education for sexual abuse prevention in schools and churches. We are not done with our dark days, but there is a sense that we are taking responsibility and dealing with the failures of the last sixty years or so.

    As evidenced by the recent scandals at Penn State and now the Citadel Military College we can watch as secular institutions will now have to confront the same problems — decades of cover ups and silence. Once the legal profession figures out how to extract large sums for settlements, watch how many formerly abused victims come forward. Since a child is statistically more likely to be abused by a coach or teacher, than a priest, I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a new wave of painful disclosures in these institutions. In the coming years, I fully expect these secular institutions will start looking at the new protocols and procedures implemented by the Catholic church — once they learn to deal with the pain of collective shame.

  13. Our parish priests have never, NEVER once mentioned the scandal. Never offered prayers for the abused nor mentioned where priests who get caught in our diocese disappear to. It’s like the White Elephant in the room.

    I can see how folks leave the Church over the issue, I know of several personally.

    There is man’s law and there is God’s law. Priests/Bishops are not the Church and represent man’s laws which are fallible and ever changing. Early Catholics celebrated without priests, Bishops, and Cardinals. The Church is the liturgy and the practice by Catholics in celebrating the Body and Blood.

  14. “Early Catholics celebrated without priests, Bishops, and Cardinals.”

    St. Ignatius of Antioch on his way to Rome to be martyred no later than the year 110, wrote to several churches, speaking to them as communities gathered around their bishop with his priests and deacons. And of course, before that there were the apostles, whom the bishops are successors to; and the New Testament speaks of appointing individuals to preside over the local communities. So I’d say your claim is not well founded with respect to priestless or bishopless Eucharistic liturgies. There were no Cardinals, but that title is just an honorific except when it comes to electing a pope.

  15. HMS,

    As with your friend, I have done the same thing. I give as much, or more, as I used to – just not to the diocese or anything that would be shared with the diocese. I support alot of the Catholic organizations like St. Vincent de Paul, missionaries, Catholic Charities, KoC, and even our parish building fund but I cannot in good conscience support the bishops until the Church reacts with the same speed and decisiveness that we saw at Penn State – dismissal of whoever did not go to all lengths to protect our children and prosecution for the one who actually abused them. Paterno did what was required by LAW and was still dismissed for not having done more – how can a Church justify doing so much less?

  16. Praying to Mary – celebrating Mass – venerating the Pope – Purgatory. you won’t find these doctrines in the Bible. People are leaving this religious system and going to a church where they can hear the real truth of the Bible and not be burdened with rules /. reg’s that change like the weather.
    Sola fide / sola gratia.

  17. Are you a victum of the Church abuse scandle Jake? If so, I understand your heart and I pray for it to soften or at least come to some closure. If not, then I don’t see how you have any say on the dictates of other people’s heart. You can’t speak on whether they forgive or not.

  18. Why continually blame the victim? The only reason we went to a lawyer is because we went to the priest and bishop and they basically called us liars and said, “Prove it.” We thought hitting their pocket books would make them sit up and listen to us, listen to our pain. They did not. And – it’s not easy money either. It’s several years of legal wrangling and reliving our pain over and over again. By the time ALL the lawyers get their cut, we are left with just enough to pay for our therapy – traditional or alternative.

    Don’t delude yourself. At least Penn State took action and fired those who were complicit. Sure is better than moving a pedophile to an unsuspecting church with fresh, new victims.

    Oh, and we left the church because the hypocrisy was dripping in, well, hypocrisy. I would suggest that you listen to the victims more and to the bishops less. They only want you to believe that change is taking place. Change in the church? Not in my lifetime.

  19. I don’t know why you seem to be so surprised that you are asked to “prove” a crime- You don’t really expect to put a priest behind bars on hearsay alone? Of course you have to prove it otherwise it’s simply just too easy for someone to say they have been abused- especially if there’s the prospect of a nice sum of “compensation” dangled before their eyes.

  20. Perhaps you might read a Catholic Catechism before you make ridiculous statements like “venerating the Pope”. You wouldn’t have the Bible to thump had it not been for the Catholic Church.

  21. Perhaps you could study up on ecclesiology. Priests and Bishops are just as much part of the Church as you or I. Without priests there would be no Eucharist, without the Eucharist there would be no Church. I think you ought to study a little more about Catholicism.
    Why would priests mention the scandals unless it happened in their parish?
    If your son or daughter was involved in a scandal would you leave your family?
    If those you know left over the scandals, what did they ever believe about it?

  22. So when the Diocese can’t pay its bills and winds up closing your parish because it can’t pay its bills either I guess you will be happy with that. Bizarre.

  23. If I am a victim then you could “understand my heart” only if you are a victim, too. Then you could offer empathy rather than, or in addition to, sympathy. Love is always proper to give if one is a Christian.

    If I am not a victim then I agree that my last paragraph should have started with a less absolute statement. I’ll amend it to read; “No — no more chances are likely to be given nor accepted by those who have left.”

  24. That is what I do, also. Not a penny to the diocese. I will decide where my charitable monies go, not the bishop.

  25. On hearsay? No. But I would expect a priest, of all people, to own up to his wrongs. And I would expect the bishop to do the same; own up to a wrong committed in his jurisdiction.

    If more did there would not be the need for lawyers, trials and negotiated settlements. Behind every law suit, criminal trial, and settlement there is a priest who did not own up to the wrong he committed and a bishop who is seemingly more concerned with his diocese than with the victim.

  26. No whining from me. But if there are cuts in services, then quite a number of people will have felt as I do, for my pittance would not make such a significant difference.

  27. George: I have no idea where you live but your experiences may be a localized one. Several of the parishes I have been attached to (either as a parishioner or in my diaconal assignments) with have been directly affected by the scandal.

    –In one, the diocesan team was in the parish removing the pastor within a day of them finding out formally about the abuse.

    –In another, a newly appointed pastor in a parish, that had such a priest assigned in the past, was asked to do some follow-up by his chancery and several folks (including the parish secretary) were interviewed.

    –I know that prayers for the families involved have been publicly said because I was in attendance when they were.

    –I even know if cases where church sanctions were put in place against clergy who — while they admitted to their activities — were never legally charged with anything in criminal court because of either statutes of limitation were in place or they relocated out-of-state (courts cannot or maybe will not extradite on misdemeanors — the crime has to be a legal felony).

    –Finally, I will admit that the priests who were found guilty do “vanish.” That is often for their own protection — there are folks out there who would gladly kill a pedophile priest. Consider the John Geoghan/Joseph Druce situation in Massachusetts.

  28. Hi. After reading all of the comments so far I just want to say that I am a relatively new convert to the RCC (easter will be three years) and I can honestly say I truly found my home. I don’t know if everyone posting comments on this particular page is Catholic but I’ve seen some who may need to go back and really study and learn what the Catholic faith is really about. Concerning the Apostolic Succession and The Authority in the Church…this concept or truth, once I learned this, there was no turning back. This was fascinating to me and thankfully i grasped this truth and accepted it early on in my journey. The Authority given to Peter from Christ, to the apostols, and down through time through Bishop after Bishop, Priest after Priest, Pope after Pope by the laying on of hands. At this time I had to accept that while I may not be able to understand the concept of Mary and some other typical issues protestants have with Catholicism, I HAD to Pray hard and continue to study and let God guide me because if I had already accepted the truth about the Authority of the Church, Then, on matters of faith, I would HAVE to come to some understanding….or leave God all together. Because either Christ was right about his Church or he wasn’t. Period.
    Even as a Protestant Lutheran I began to understand the concept of Authority in the RCC. For me, It began there.
    I realize there are a lot of people who have been hurt but you have to be able to separate the man from the church, the sin from the sinner. You have been hurt by sinful men. Not the Church, not Christ.
    In the Catholic Church, You receive Christ himself in the Eucharist. This is where the healing begins, in Christ.
    God Bless

  29. Sorry. I should have been more specific. They have secret files with evidence that people reported these crimes in all the cases I am aware of. So, they had the proof, but the onus was on me – now a hurting adult – to prove what adults knew when I was a 9 y/o little girl.

    Thanks for allowing me to clarify.

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