February 27, 2004

While it's regained some support since the height of its child sex-abuse scandal, the Catholic Church has far to go in repairing the damage.

Two-thirds of Americans continue to disapprove of the church's response to the crisis, including a majority of Catholics, an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll finds.

In advance of the church's release of a report on the scandal Friday, this poll underscored the harm done to its credibility: Fifty-eight percent of Americans see a continued cover-up, and only four in 10 say the church can be trusted to handle this issue in the future. On these, though, most Catholics differ.

There is some positive news for the church. For the first time in nearly two years most Americans view it favorably.

While about half say it cannot be trusted to handle this issue properly, that's down 10 points since October.

And the church's ratings have improved disproportionately among Catholics, who are more favorably inclined toward it, and at the same time are perhaps better positioned to monitor its response to the scandal.

Among all Americans, 66 percent disapprove of the church's handling of the scandal, and nearly half disapprove "strongly." Among Catholics, 53 percent disapprove, one-third strongly.

Disapproval peaked at 77 percent overall, and 70 percent of Catholics, last fall -- meaning it's lessened by a substantial 17 points among Catholics. At the same time, though, even among Catholics, "strong" disapprovers outnumber "strong" approvers by about 2-1.

At its worst in June 2002, just under seven in 10 Catholics expressed a favorable opinion of their church. Today that's rebounded to 87 percent. In December that year, 54 percent of Catholics said the church could not be trusted to handle this issue in the future; now that's declined to 28 percent.

Indeed nearly two in three Catholics now say the church can be trusted to handle the issue in the future, while, in one of the most striking differences between groups, just 35 percent of non-Catholics agree. Similarly, six in 10 Catholics -- compared with fewer than three in 10 non-Catholics -- believe church officials now are mainly trying to prevent the problem, not cover it up.

The church fares best among churchgoing Catholics -- those who attend Mass at least a few times a month. In this group 51 percent approve of the church's handling of the issue of sexual abuse by priests, about seven in 10 think it can be trusted to handle the issue properly in the future, and as many think it's working mainly to prevent the problem.

This ABCNEWS/ Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 18-22 among a random national sample of 1,028 adults. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were conducted by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

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