Inside Catholic Church, Many Satisfied With Response to Clergy Abuse, NBC Survey Finds

Dave Baillargeon rediscovered his Catholic faith more than a decade ago when his daughter was baptized.

"I would be with the blessed sacrament in the church and just praying for maybe an hour before Mass, and I felt that God was calling me to do something else," he said. "Something more."

That calling was so strong that 14 years ago, Baillargeon became a deacon — an ordained minister, one step below a priest.

But his spirituality would also be tested. After participating in a religious procession through downtown Northampton one year ago, Baillargeon said a mother presented him with a letter alleging her son had been molested by a Massachusetts priest.

Over the years, more stories followed from other victims, and about other priests.

When Baillargeon spoke out about the allegations, he says church leaders told him he could no longer serve as a deacon in his local church.

The Diocese of Springfield disputed that claim, telling the NBC10 Boston Investigators that Baillargeon was moved to another church because he did not "preach on the Gospel of the day as required."

But the experience left Baillargeon rattled.

"My faith in the church structure and the hierarchy of the whole thing started to really be questionable," he said.

Revelations of clergy abuse have shaken many Catholics across the country, including in Massachusetts, where 17 years ago, journalists exposed a wide-ranging effort by local church leaders to cover up the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

But the church also has a rich history in the Bay State, where one in three adults still identifies as Catholic — more than any other faith. And support for church leaders remains strong inside the organization, according to a new, anonymous, national survey by the NBC Owned Television Stations.

!function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}})}();

Explore the full survey results

The survey, launched this fall, invited some 32,000 people who work or volunteer for the Catholic church to share their opinions on topics ranging from the leadership of Pope Francis to how they view gender roles and church doctrine.

The results indicate that Baillargeon is part of only a small minority of faithful inside the church who say leaders should have done more in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal.

Among the 2,700 people who responded — ranging from priests and nuns to lay people, such as church secretaries and staff — a little more than 80% said they believe their own church has handled clergy sex abuse properly.

Sixty four percent said they believe media coverage of clergy abuse is not fair. And close to half said they believe sex abuse was never more problematic inside the church than in other organizations that supervise children.

Fourteen percent said sex abuse is no longer a major problem, while about 39% said they still view it as a major problem.

Mark Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, said the results show many church workers have a "somewhat rosier view" of how their parish has handled the abuse crisis than Catholics as a whole.

"But their understanding that most of these cases are old, that they have systems in place — all of that, I think, is a fair reading of how the church currently deals with these situations," he said.

After reviewing some findings from the NBC survey, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston pointed to the church's ongoing efforts to make children safe, including annual training the church provides to 130,000 children annually.

The church has also provided "pastoral and medical support" to more than 1,000 victims of clergy abuse since 2002, according to the spokesman, Terry Donilon.

"It is clear we have much more to do to promote healing," Donilon said, "and the Church must remain vigilant in its efforts to protect children and vulnerable adults as well as prevent sexual abuse from ever happening again."

In other areas, the survey uncovered some support for progressive reforms.

!function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}})}();

Explore the full survey results

A majority of respondents said the church should consider ordaining married men as priests. That's currently disallowed, although an assembly of Catholic bishops signaled last month it could be open to revisiting the policy, spurred by a request from church leaders in South America.

Most people who responded to the NBC survey also support further study of women becoming permanent deacons — another contentious proposal being debated inside the Vatican.

But they were uncomfortable with allowing women to be priests. Among respondents to the NBC survey, nuns were slightly more enthusiastic about the idea than priests. About 20% of nuns said they support further study of allowing females into the priesthood, compared with about 10% of priests.

!function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}})}();

Explore the full survey results

"The priesthood is still kind of a boys' club," said Silk, the Trinity College professor. "The idea that you would be dealing with colleagues, with fellow priests who are women, or even ordained deacons clearly makes a lot of priests nervous."

Bill Donohue, president of The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a conservative organization that has staunchly defended the church, said the NBC survey shows Catholics are generally happy with their own parish.

"Just like all politics is local, in the Catholic church, all religion or all Catholicism is local, too," Donohue said.

As for clergy sex abuse, Donohue said most Catholics believe the church has corrected its mistakes.

"There is no institution, secular or religious, in the United States today that has less of a problem with the sexual abuse of minors than the Roman Catholic church," he said.

Explore the Data

Credit: Nelson Hsu/NBC

Survey Methodology

This 26-question unweighted survey was conducted using Survey Monkey between the dates of Oct. 18, 2019 and Nov. 14, 2019. Survey forms were sent via email to 32,616 email addresses listed in the Official Catholic Directory. A total of 2,700 responses were returned, resulting in an 8.3% response rate. Survey Monkey calculates the survey's margin of error +/- 2% at a 95% confidence interval. All sample surveys and polls are subject to multiple sources of error including self-selection bias and error associated with the wording of questions.

Contact Us