US confidence in Pope Francis’ handling of abuse scandal drops

Pope Francis touches his forehead during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on Sept. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

(RNS) — Confidence in Pope Francis’ handling of the child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church has dropped dramatically among American Catholics in recent months, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center.

The report, released Tuesday (Oct. 2), shows that only 3 in 10 Catholic adults (31 percent) say Francis is doing an “excellent” or a “good” job addressing the ongoing child sex abuse crisis. That number is down 24 points since Pew asked the question in 2015, and 14 points from January of this year.

And while a solid majority of U.S. Catholics — 72 percent — expressed a favorable overall view of Francis in the survey, that number constitutes a 12 point drop from January, when 84 percent said the same. Meanwhile, 20 percent say they have an unfavorable view of the pontiff, up from just 9 percent earlier this year.

“U.S. Catholics increasingly critical of the way Pope Francis has handled sex abuse scandal.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Researchers noted that the dip is evident across multiple cross sections of the faithful. The share of Catholic men and women who believe Francis is doing an “excellent” or “good” job handing the sex abuse crisis has dropped almost equally: 24 and 23 points respectively. Older and younger churchgoers, and even Catholics who say they attend Mass weekly, were on the whole less approving of the pope. Of the latter group, only 34 percent give Francis an “excellent” or “good” rating. In 2015, that number was 67 percent.

Taken together, Francis’ overall favorability ratings among U.S. Catholics now roughly match those of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Francis’ popularity has also declined among other U.S. Christians. In January, 52 percent of white evangelical Protestants had a favorable view of the pope, but that number fell to 32 percent in September. Mainline Protestants saw a similar drop: 67 percent had a favorable view in January, but only 48 percent do now.

Views of Francis among the religiously unaffiliated, however, have changed little in 2018, dropping from 58 percent favorability in January to 53 percent today.

The findings come in the wake of renewed activity in the United States surrounding allegations of child sex abuse in the church. In August, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro unveiled a more than 1,300-page grand jury report detailing allegations of sexual abuse by hundreds of Catholic priests in the state over 70 years that resulted in more than 1,000 alleged child victims, as well as accusing church leaders of a “systemic” cover-up. Since then, at least 11 other states have launched some sort of inquiry into local dioceses regarding sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, Francis — along with Benedict — has faced accusations of mishandling alleged sexual misconduct by former Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Francis removed McCarrick from public ministry in June after reports he allegedly sexually abused a teenager more than 40 years ago. But an open letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in August claimed Francis lifted earlier sanctions placed on McCarrick by Benedict that were imposed, according to Viganò, in response to rumors that McCarrick sexually harassed adult seminarians.

The claims by Viganò, who previously served as the papal ambassador (typically called a nuncio) to the United States, remain a matter of heated dispute. It is unclear what kind of sanctions Benedict placed on McCarrick, if any, and whether they were ever enforced.

“Just three-in-ten U.S. Catholics now have ‘very favorable’ view of Pope Francis.” Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Nevertheless, the controversy has haunted Francis’ papacy throughout 2018. In January, Francis faced sharp criticism for defending Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who was facing allegations of covering up a child sex abuse scandal. The pope eventually shifted course and went on to accept the resignations of three Chilean bishops (including Barros).

The Pew survey was conducted Sept. 18-24 among 1,754 adults, including 336 Catholics. Among the Catholic subgroup, the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 6.2 percentage points.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.


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  • Francis joins all the popes before him, along with a very substantial set of the red hatters.

  • How curious! The pope’s popularity has declined amongst Christians, but it only declined a little amongst the religiously unaffiliated. Perhaps the unaffiliated are just not as interested in what the Pope is doing and saying.

  • I am curious why they would care about what non-Roman Catholics think. They may or may not like an individual for the tone he sets and his influence in the greater world or movement on ecumenical matters. Christians outside of the Roman Church already disagree with the concept of a pope as defined by the Roman Church, why would they support a pope whose job is to protect and promote the Roman Church?

  • I did expect more from Francis in handling sex abuse. But he is making moves now. And he is delving into spaces that BXVI never dared to touch. I think he is especially seeing that he cannot leave bishops without oversight – and I hope he sees that oversight must come from an empowered body of the faithful and not from some all priest/bishop Vatican dicastery or from just national/regional bishops conferences. I would not trust the USCCB to do anything but play politics with any “oversight” that was led by the current crop of USCCB overlords.

    There really are no mechanisms in place for the kind of oversight that is needed on bishops today because it must be under the power of the laity. So, the Catholic Church needs to empower laity oversight of the priestly/ordained caste through real changes in Canon Law and the mandatory creation of structures that provide for it. More it really must end the idea that priests and bishops have some higher, special place in God’s scheme. It

    One more. The Church wants to impose a right to have bishops behave within various countries according to the culture of Rome/Vatican. They don’t want to cooperate with other countries in how the people of those countries design their own cultural ideals of law and order. This idea of the Church is the same “cultural colonization” Francis is so opposed to on other issues. And, it is exactly what happened as the Catholic Church followed the imperial conquerors of lands of the Americas, Australia, Philippines, India and parts of Asia and Africa – cultural colonization. What is it that our Lord asks of us – teaches us – outside of the cultural interpretations we make of His love and His words?

  • But those that are interested, like commenters here, probably did not have a high opinion of him to begin with. Thus no drop-off.

  • It’s an abysmal record.

    And the coverup appears to be getting worse.

    The buggerists may not be buggering as much as they were, but the coverups are deepening.

  • He’s finishing 5 years.
    He was given a report by Benedict….a whole investigation.
    It’s not like he was waiting for data to come in.

    You’re being far too easy on him because he’s a liberal.

  • ”…. I hope he sees that oversight must come from an empowered body of the faithful and not from some all priest/bishop Vatican dicastery or from just national/regional bishops conferences.”

    So, you’re hoping he scraps Vatican I and II, particularly Lumen Gentium which describes the bishops as successors to the Apostles and the Church as hierarchical by divine institution, and turns it into something akin to the Episcopal Church?

    What do you think the odds of that are?

  • No one really knows what was in the “report” from Benedict. Worse, it was an investigation under the aegis of Benedict – who has his own handups.

    Francis is dealing with what JPII and Benedict did not deal with. Benedict did get the ball rolling after the abysmal and horrific lack of action by JPII. But, Benedict did not recognize the huge hole in the entire vision – that the people harmed were more important that the priests. He allowed the secrecy to carry on. Benedict even extended that idea of “protect the highest ranked person” because he knew of the actions of McCarrick with seminarians and young priests and kept it all secret, took absolutely ineffective actions (if we are to believe the traitor Vigano) and then did nothing when they did fail.

    Yes. There is a whole new paradigm to deal with – an educated and informed laity who are not under the thumbs of “divine right” rulers, but are used to being a part of deciding their own governance, participating in making laws and being parts of communities where civil law is the primary means of maintaining order.

    Does Francis really understand most of this? No. But he understands better than his predecessors that change must continue, that the Catholic church is failing at inspiring and evangelizing the world, and that change must come, even change in long held “traditional” ways of thinking, teaching, worship.

    Much better Francis with his flaws than JPII, BXVI, or someone like Burke who is so full of anger and fear I wonder that he can even pray any more.

  • Francis has his favorites…movements, trips to China of known degenerate Cardinals, promotions of other seminary trollers, etc.

    It’s all on Francis’s watch.

    Liberals love his loose speech, and they will make excuses for him, as you have done.

    It’s the intellectual integrity of these revisionists that is the real harm.

    Their agenda dominates them..and then it clouds their intellect, and now weakens their virtue.

    The agenda isn’t what is at’s their closeness to truth.

  • And what we have on the watch of the sainted JPII is a growing, growing scandal of sex abuse that he totally ignored. We have a beginning of addressing the problem under Benedict but do you notice that it did not really deal with the scandal of past abuse and never held those responsible actually accountable – not just the priest abuser but the bishop who abetted the abuser.

    McCarrick was on JPII’s and BXVI’s watch – and what did they do? Very little to virtually nothing when it came to bishops who covered up or who actually committed sexual abuse. Francis is the first to take effective action against bishops and cardinals . While O’Brien of Scotland resigned while Benedict was Pope it was Francis who accepted O’Brien’s renunciation of all duties as cardinal, an event extremely rare in Church history, on 20 March 2015. It was Francis who assured McCarrick was removed of any active life in the hierarchy or in the priesthood.

    BXVI two important but incomplete steps in addressing sex abuse in the Church – he got Maciel out and exposed him as the sex abuser BXVI had long know he was but could not get JPII to act on. Second he got the ball rolling on addressing child safety – although it happened under JPII it was BXVI who put the program together. It has made a different in reducing abuse in some places but do you notice that the scandal is still a scandal in the U.S., Ireland, Australia, Germany, Belgium, Canada – just about everywhere because BXVI did not deal with the past, with caring for those who were abused, with exposing those who committed abuse, and really looking at how the actions of bishops made them complicit in the extent of sex abuse that occurred.

    There is much more I wish Francis would do to hold bishops accountable and to look at structures of the Church which made the sex abuse scandal so bad. How did this Church, founded by the first followers of Jesus, go so wrong that all they could think about was protecting their reputation rather than protect children? Power gone amuk; Tradition raised to idolatry. So how does the Church bring a measure of control? – by dispersing some of that power so that there are checks and balances.

  • ignoring your bugaboo about the episcopal church, why should not the catholic church reach back into its history and pick and choose those practices that would be best for today’s situation . the church is not bound only to do what has been done for the last two or three hundred years ?

    the bishops remain as successors to the apostles no matter how appointed or elected . nor do best practices for the administration of dioceses interfere with their apostolic roles .

  • JPII may have been naive about how bad some boy chasing priests and clerics are, but Francis has has the data for a while.

    And what did Francis do? Stop investigations. See the story of how Francis had Muller stop in the middle of the Mass (!!!!!) in order to go to the sacristy to receive instructions on stoping an abuse investigation.

    Francis fired 3 of Muller’s staff priests who were working on abuse investigations and then bristled at Muller when Muller asked why. “I am Pope I don’t need to give reasons”.

    Face it. Face it. Francis is not only doctrinally errant…he’s morally errant.

  • Yes, Francis has had the data. But he has to work with over 5000 bishops and an institution that does not have the mechanisms to review itself, its culture and attitudes. Worst, I have to wonder if Francis does not realize that part of the problem is the concentration of power within a hierarchical organization and that the solution is to dilute the power of the bishops, increase the oversight by creating and empowering lay involvement and power sharing with the laity. One more, Francis has to work with existing Canon Law and with a Canon law that allowed bishops to coverup abuse because they were the “father” to their priest “sons”, because they were supposed to help them get treatment, because

    More, Francis has to work with the robotic and mindless “leaders” JPII and BXVI brought into power in the VAtican, like Burke, Muller, Sarah, and people promoted to positions of power like Chaput. It must be enormously frustrating to Francis to have back stabbers like them but these are the kinds of people that JPII and BXVI encouraged and allowed to come to power – those who can’t think, imagine, but have to live out a life style of separateness and power that has long since stopped being effective in providing real leadership in the world of today.

    Francis is also a product of his times and holds to some cultural attitudes that simply no longer fit the world. This is particularly true with regard to the role of women in the world, in the church, in society. I don’t know if he can come to a new vision of women in the world. But I would rather have Francis on the Chair of Peter than anyone else right now, because Francis knows the hierarchical culture must change, something JPII and BXVI never could come to grips with.

  • pope francis is not a liberal . he was and is a rather conservative cleric . what he is is one who has little patience with the nonsense of the old guard clerics who think that the church is for their glory and the support of the secular world that gives them money . with them he has made enemies .

    you have no evidence that “[h]e was given a report by Benedict….a whole investigation.” you have only an unverified claim made by vigano . there is no good explanation why mccarrick would be able to continue his very public church life for 4 or 5 years under benedict xvi if benedict had required of him a life of “prayer and penance” .

  • ????? that doesn’t even make sense . it is not a possible ideology nor a historical reality .

    it does suggest that you may be quite confused about “liberation theology” . hint : it is a theology, and it is profoundly christian .

  • Burke, as just one example of what you call ” robotic and mindless ‘leaders’ JPII and BXVI brought into power” is neither robotic nor mindless.

    Francis, btw, does not have to work with existing Canon Law. He is the sole author of Canon Law.

    I see you managed to reduce this to “cultural attitudes” and a “hierarchical culture” disregarding the Church’s constant teaching that its structure was provided by its founder.

  • Its structure was not provided by its founder – if you are referring to Our Lord Jesus Christ. The structure was created over the first few centuries and became formalized under a Roman Emperor. The structure mimics how powerful structures were formed in those times. The form of the Church – patriarchal and hierarchical – reflects the culture of the times. I believe it was a reasonable decision, making possibly the evangelization that Our Lord said needed to be done.

    But remember this, too. Our Lord intended to reform Judaism and had much to say against the pettiness of priests, scribes, pharisees of His time, which is what the form of the Roman Catholic Church became. Our Lord asked that we share a meal and remember Him in sharing wine and bread. The Apostles were married; the “leaders” in the gatherings of those who came to accept Jesus message in those first few hundred years were men and women – not priests. And yet, our Lord was as present in their gatherings as we know he is present today. It is not the priest who brings Jesus to us – it is the gathering together of those who believe in Him which manifests His presence.

    When the form of the structure becomes an impediment to the mission Jesus gave to His followers, then it is time to change the form. We are seeing that the priesthood is failing, the hierarchy of bishops and popes are not functioning with honor, truth, integrity in the world of today. They think their mission is the Church itself, when their mission is the evangelization of people to love of God and love of neighbor. It is time for a change.

  • Our Lord intended to found a Church, not reform Judaism.

    I have pointed out repeatedly that the position its structure was NOT provided by its founder Jesus Christ flies directly into the face of the Catholic Church’s constant teaching, most recently Lumen Gentium, a document of Vatican II.

    One can vehemently disagree with that entire position. Protestants do, most rejecting apostolic succession altogether. Or you can dispute some details and conclusions, as do the Orthodox, while accepting in the main a hierarchical church and apostolic succession.

    Of course some of its structure reflects time and place, all human endeavors do.

    But the patriarchal and hierarchical aspects are NOT culturally conditioned and if one takes that position, one parts with the Church itself, cannot claim to be a faithful Catholic, which means one is critiquing from the outside of the Church, not from inside as a Catholic.

  • Let’s just go by the figures in the article above.

    Between February and September 2018, there was a drop of 23 or 24 per cent in the proportion of Catholic men and women who believed that the Pope was doing a good or excellent job in tackling the question of sex abuse in the church. However, overall, Catholics had a favourable impression of the Pope. His popularity, however, declined from 84% to 72%.

    Over the same period, Evangelical Christian opinion of the Pope declined from 52% to 32% while mainline Protestant opinion of the Pope dropped from 67% to 48%.

    Meanwhile, the opinion of the unaffiliated only dropped from 58% to 53%.

    Overall, the Pope was most popular among Catholics: 84% down to 72%.
    Protestant opinion fell more sharply: 67% to 48% for Mainline Protestants and 52% to 32% amongst Evangelicals.

    The unaffiliated opinion of the Pope went from 58% to 53%, less of a decline than among Catholics and much less of a decline than amongst Protestants.

    I would speculate that while Catholics remain supportive of the Pope, they are greatly affected by reports of sexual abuse. Meanwhile, while they remain quite positive about the Pope, the unaffiliated are just less interested in what he might do or say. Protestants are more interested than the unaffiliated in what the Pope might say or do but are also more critical, and are more swayed by media reports of sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

    However, as the unaffiliated are now less critical of the Pope than Protestants, it could be that they are more indifferent to his actions and teachings.

  • Our Lord intended to spread the word, create a new way for people to understand God’s love and their own capacity to love their neighbors in return. While He may have envisioned a structure, He did not give any hint whatsoever of what form that structure would/should take. All this of “ontologically changed” priests, of leaders treated as princes, of the riches of gold thead vestments, of marble cathedrals – that is what man created. Man also shaped the hierarchical/patriarchal structure that was consistent with power structure of the times in which the formation took place.

    There is nothing sacred about the shape of the Catholic Church. What is sacred is the mission – to spread the word of God’s love. Don’t create an idol of the Church as some substitute for Our Lord, or of Popes, bishops, priests as substituting for Him. Our allegiance belongs to Our Lord.

  • “Our Lord intended to spread the word, create a new way for people to understand God’s love and their own capacity to love their neighbors in return.”

    He came to die for our sins, open the gates of heaven, and found a church. That, for a Catholic, is de fide.

    “While He may have envisioned a structure, He did not give any hint whatsoever of what form that structure would/should take.”

    He gave Peter the power of the keys and the role of confirming the brethren. He established seven sacraments with seven unique signs of seven different graces. One of these sacraments was Orders. That, for a Catholic, is de fide.

    “All this of ‘ontologically changed’ priests, of leaders treated as princes, of the riches of gold thead vestments, of marble cathedrals – that is what man created.”

    The ontological change to a sacerdotal person is part of the sacrament of Orders. That, for a Catholic is de fide.

    The vestments and accouterments are man-made.

    “Man also shaped the hierarchical/patriarchal structure that was consistent with power structure of the times in which the formation took place.”

    The hierarchical structure of the Church is by divine institution. That, for a Catholic, is de fide.

    The “patriarchal” nature of Orders is part of the sacrament. That, for a Catholic, is de fide.

    The complementary nature of male and female, as God made them, which you also call “patriarchal” is part of the Creator’s design. That, for a Catholic, is de fide.

    “There is nothing sacred about the shape of the Catholic Church.”

    Except, of course, for its hierarchical structure, its seven sacraments, of which one is Orders and its divine teaching mission – Mater et Magister – all of which are divinely established. That, for a Catholic, is de fide.

    If you find yourself in disagreement with basic Catholic teachings, there is a message there for you.