HAMDEN, Conn. – The court of public opinion is indicting Roman Catholic church leaders who failed to report sexual abuse allegations against priests.
About 77 percent of Americans and 70 percent of Roman Catholics think bishops who covered up sexual abuse by priests should resign, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Thursday.
The loudest calls for resignation have come against Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, who is under heavy criticism for the way sexual abuse claims were handled.
Sixty percent of Roman Catholics in Massachusetts told Quinnipiac researchers that Law should step down. A similar result was reported in a Boston Herald poll in February.
Calls for resignation were not so widespread against Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who has been questioned about the way he handled sexual abuse cases when he was bishop of Bridgeport. About 22 percent of New York Catholics and 31 percent of Connecticut Catholics said Egan should resign.
The poll results indicate a danger that people will paint all bishops the same, said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
"I don't want to see a feeding frenzy that could take place. Each man has to be treated evenly and fairly," Donohue said. "Law stands out above all of them."
The poll also found that few Catholics think the scandal has shaken their religious faith, their faith in their parish priest or in the pope.
More than two-thirds of American Catholics think priests should be able to marry and that women should be allowed to become priests.
The telephone poll was conducted from April 1 to April 9. Quinnipiac surveyed 1,347 people nationwide, including 326 Catholics. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, and 5 percentage points for the national Catholic subgroup.
The poll also surveyed 247 Catholics in New York, 252 in Massachusetts and 229 in Connecticut. These state polls had margins of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.
Law is under fire for moving two priests from parish to parish despite allegations they had molested children.
According to the poll, 82 percent of Massachusetts Catholics said Law has done a "poor" or "not so good" job of handling sexual abuse allegations in the past.
If Law and other bishops accused of similar cover-ups resigned, it would send a message that the church is ending its culture of secrecy and upholding its reputation for integrity, experts said.
The issue goes beyond parishioners to touch Catholic institutions including schools, hospitals and social service agencies, said R. Scott Appleby, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.
"Everything rides on the integrity of these bishops and the prudential decision-making necessary to run their diocese. You have to have people without blemish in these positions," Appleby said.
The poll mirrors research done about the laity by William D'Antonio, a professor of the sociology of religion, family and politics at Catholic University.
D'Antonio said an increasing number of American Catholics are following their own consciences about premarital sex, birth control and homosexuality, instead of following church teachings.
An increasing number also think the church should allow female and married priests.
Catholics think the church should be more democratic, from their neighborhood parish all the way up to the Vatican, D'Antonio said.
"We have gone a long way from pre-Vatican II, when we prayed, paid and obeyed," D'Antonio said.
This disagreement against church leaders, combined with widespread disgust and anger about sex abuse scandals, may combine to force real changes, he said.
"This situation is not at all clear, and the laity may not be at all satisfied that getting rid of a bishop or two will solve the problem," D'Antonio said. "The data suggest to me that it is a very stressful time."
Victims of sexual abuse by priests are consoled by the support they are receiving from other Catholics, said Barbara Blaine, founder and president of Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Resigning would be a first step toward taking responsibility. I don't see how any Catholic can trust any leadership that has put innocent children at risk," Blaine said.