The long-simmering Catholic Church sex abuse scandal has been back in the headlines in recent months, beginning with widespread allegations in June against Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who resigned from the College of Cardinals. Soon after came revelations from a Pennsylvania grand jury report that more than 300 priests are accused of sexually abusing minors over the past 70 years. Most recently, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò stunned the world when he released a letter charging that Pope Francis and other senior church officials knew about at least some of the abuses and did nothing.
The decline in the pope’s standing on the sex abuse issue cuts across age and gender lines. In addition, Catholics who attend Mass regularly are not significantly more likely to rate the pope positively on this issue (34%) than those who do not (30%).
At the beginning of Francis’ pontificate in 2013, a Pew Research Center survey found that 70% of U.S. Catholics ranked the scandal as “a top priority” for the pope, compared with far fewer who said the same about standing up for traditional moral values (49%) and spreading the Catholic faith (39%).
Francis’ declining rating on the sex abuse scandal mirrors a pattern seen during the papacy of his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI. By the time of Benedict’s retirement in February 2013, one-third of American Catholics who were following the news of his resignation (33%) rated his handling of the issue as excellent or good – down from roughly half (49%) who held this view five years earlier.