It doesn’t take more than a glance at the recent Reuters report to see that the American Catholic church doesn’t just have a crisis in the rising number of former Catholics. Unsurprisingly, those same Catholics took their money when they walked. The resulting closures of multiple parishes and a drain on the retirement fund for priests have added to the $3 billion cost of the clergy sex abuse scandal, leaving the American church with a massive money problem and shrinking numbers of parishioners on the eve of Pope Francis’ arrival.
A recent study by Nicholas Bottan and Ricardo Perez-Trugila in the Journal of Public Economics revealed that, unsurprisingly, “a scandal causes a persistent decline in the local Catholic affiliation and church attendance.”
“Some Catholics join other religious denominations during the first three years after a scandal,” they write. “But these individuals later end up with no religious affiliation.” They end up, in other words, as Nones.
The economists involved in this study focused on the zip code where a clergy sex scandal had occurred. They found a “large and statistically significant effect” on charitable contributions in those zip codes after a scandal, and not only to Catholic-based charitable organizations. The researchers theorize that perhaps once a person stops attending church, the social pressure to be charitable declines.
Interestingly, however, these same individuals mirror the statistical notion that even though an increasing number of Americans consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, that doesn’t necessarily mean they do not believe in God. Botton and Perez-Trugila indicate that sex abuse scandals cost the church money and participation, but not necessarily faith.
For many Millennials and members of Generation X, who make up the largest percentage of the religiously unaffiliated, the sex abuse scandal may or may not be as much of an issue as it was to their parents and grandparents. Christian Smith, who is co-Principal Investigator of the multi-year National Study of Youth and Religion at Notre Dame, says that when teens were polled in 2003, “none of them were freaked out by the priest abuse scandal. They mostly liked and trusted their own priests, and recognized that in any organization there will always be some bad people. We saw zero evidence then that the scandal was turning teenagers away from Church.”
David Clohessy, the Executive Director of SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests), disagrees with Smith. “Generations of Catholics have been raised to respect and revere priests and bishops and trust them implicitly,” he says. “Even without the scandal, younger people are more skeptical and rightfully so. Most survivors are no longer churchgoers. Very few of their children are.” Clohessy says this mistrust and ensuing disaffiliation isn’t necessarily about the abuse, but about the cover-up.
Clohessy reports a drop-off in younger people contacting SNAP, but says that’s “largely attributable to an enormous backlog of survivors who told no one for decades.” He notes that church officials may report that abuse cases are declining, but that it must also be taken into account that given the history of secrecy in the Catholic hierarchy, it can be difficult to trust that the institutional church is telling the truth.
He adds, however, that as with the case of domestic violence moving into the media spotlight and cultural dialogue, sex abuse—long hidden from the mainstream—is now something enough people are aware of that they’re more likely to report it at a younger age and closer to the time when it occurs. Nonetheless, the general sense of helplessness that many Catholics felt at the height of the scandal continues today. “The church is not a democracy,” Clohessy stresses. “So people have limited ways in which they can express their disgust.” Withdrawing donations is an obvious way to make that disgust known.
In my own research, multiple young adults who grew up in Catholic families said that the sex abuse scandal did indeed contribute to their decisions to leave the church. Emily, who was raised in a devout family and at one point considered becoming a nun, reported that the abuse scandal and the Vatican investigation of women religious “made me vote with my feet” and leave the church for good.
However, Emily still feels a sense of solidarity with Catholicism. “I don’t see myself in the church,” she adds, “but with people from the church.” Elizabeth told me that discovering a family member had been abused by a clergy member “marked me with a certain set of stories.” While she identifies as Christian, she does not attend any organized form of worship.
Kyle, who was in seminary when the Boston abuse cases were at their height of media coverage and now considers himself only loosely Catholic, says that he no longer has “that respect for the church” that previous generations did.