Seven in 10 American Catholics say the issue of sexual abuse of children by priests is a "crisis" for the Catholic Church, according to a new poll conducted by ABCNEWS, the Washington Post and Beliefnet.

The poll found that Catholics' dissatisfaction with their church is growing: 71 percent of Catholics now say the sexual abuse issue is a "major problem that demands immediate attention," compared with 48 percent of Catholics one month ago. Twenty-four percent of Catholics say they have an unfavorable view of the church today, compared with 9 percent a month ago.

In the new poll, 36 percent of Catholics say they are "angry" at the way the church has handled the abuse issue, while another 34 percent say they are "dissatisfied, but not angry." Seventy-one percent call the situation a "crisis."

Feelings On Church's Handling of Abuse Cases

Angry Dissatisfied Satisfied Pleased
All Respondents 38% 42 13 3
Catholics 36% 34 19 9

The issue does not appear to be the prevalence of sexual abuse of children by priests: Non-Catholics are as likely as Catholics to say a clergy member in their own congregation has been accused of such crimes (six percent in both cases). Instead, Catholics seem to be dissatisfied with the way the church has handled it: transferring accused priests, settling claims quietly, not calling the police.

Among all Americans, 74 percent say Catholic officials in the past mainly have tried to "cover up the problem" of priests who sexually abuse children, rather than to solve it. Among the Catholic respondents, two-thirds say the same.

The poll found that Catholics have higher esteem for their local priests than for senior church leaders: 45 percent said they strongly approved of the way their priest has handled the abuse issue, while only 14 percent said the same of national Catholic leaders. Seventy-eight percent of Catholics said they trusted their own parish priest around children; 14 percent said they did not.

What Do Catholics See as Contributing Factors?

Major Part of the Problem    
Not notifying police of allegations     79%
Transferring accused priests to another parish     77
Shortage of priests     56
Not allowing priests to marry     38
Lack of Vatican oversight     30
Not allowing women to be priests     19

Specific actions, and inaction, raise ire. Nearly eight in 10 Catholics say the church's failure to notify the police of such charges is a "major part" of the problem. Almost as many say the practice of transferring accused priests to other parishes is another major cause. (Eighty-four percent "strongly" disapprove of that practice.)

A smaller majority, 56 percent, says another major factor is a reluctance among church officials to dismiss priests because they're in such short supply. That suggests most Catholics see the church as having been more interested in its administrative needs - staffing parishes - than in protecting the flock.

Four in 10 Catholics see the church's ban on marriage by priests as a major factor in the abuse problem. Six in 10 favor allowing priests to wed and favor ordaining women.

Eight in 10 Catholics said they think dioceses should be required by law to report child sex abuse allegations to police, while 15 percent said it should be up to the church to decide.

This ABCNEWS/Washington Post/Beliefnet survey was conducted by telephone March 25-28 among a random national sample of 1,086 adults, including an oversample of Catholics, producing a net sample of 503 Catholics. The results have a 4.5-point error margin for Catholics. Fieldwork was conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.
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