Eight in 10 Americans favor criminal charges against bishops who've failed to act on sexual abuse accusations against priests--a view that underscores the depth of public discontent with the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Even among Catholics, 73 percent favor obstruction or accessory charges against bishops who knew of an allegation and didn't call the police or remove the priest from duty. A grand jury in Boston, where the scandal erupted this winter, reportedly is considering filing charges against Cardinal Bernard Law, though such action is said to be unlikely.

Apart from criminal charges, more than eight in 10 Catholics and non-Catholics alike say bishops who failed to act on abuse allegations should be removed from their position. Only around one in 10 say they should be allowed to remain as bishops.

Such results show the level of continued unhappiness with the way the church has handled past cases in which priests have been accused of sexually abusing minors - and also public discontent with the way the church has dealt with the ensuing scandal.

Missed Chance
The U.S. bishops' meeting in Dallas this month looks like another missed opportunity: Before the meeting, 59 percent of Americans - rising to 77 percent of Catholics - thought it would produce "meaningful improvements" in church policy on the issue. But today far fewer - 38 percent of all Americans, and 44 percent of Catholics - say such improvements actually materialized.

Views were much the same after a delegation of American church leaders met with Vatican officials in Rome in April - before the meeting, majorities expected meaningful progress; afterwards, far fewer said such progress did occur.

One specific point of contention concerns what should be done with priests who've committed abuse. More than three-quarters of Americans, again including equal numbers of Catholics and non-Catholics, say that all priests who have sexually abused a child should be automatically removed from the priesthood. Fewer than two in 10 prefer the bishops' plan, which would allow some such priests to remain in the priesthood, albeit stripped of their duties and forbidden from wearing the collar.

More broadly, 66 percent of Americans, and 61 percent of Catholics, disapprove of the way the church is handling the situation; more than four in 10 disapprove "strongly." Only about a third of Catholics, and a quarter of all Americans approve of the church's response - levels that have held stable since April, despite the Rome and Dallas meetings.

This ABC News/Beliefnet poll was conducted by telephone June 19-23, 2002, among a random national sample of 1,023 adults, including 251 Catholics. The results have a three-point error margin for the full sample and six points for Catholics. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

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