The percentage of US Catholics who say the clergy sex abuse crisis has them questioning whether to leave the faith has jumped 15 points since the last major crisis in the early 2000s, a poll released Wednesday finds.
Thirty-seven percent of Catholics told Gallup that ‘‘recent news about sexual abuse of young people by priests’’ has them personally questioning whether to remain Catholic, compared with 62 percent who said it had not. Priest misconduct and its handling by clergy all the way to the papacy has exploded as a topic in the US church since last summer, when a series of scandals began to rock America’s largest denomination.
It’s the broadest such scandal in American Catholicism since the early 2000s, when 22 percent of US Catholics told Gallup that clergy sex abuse news was pushing them to question staying, and 76 percent said it was not.
Experts on Catholic polling say considering leaving isn’t the same as leaving. Also, the current crisis is unfolding at a time when religious identity is deconstructing and fluid for many tens of millions of Americans, so Catholics leaving the option open can’t be wholly credited to anger over clergy abuse and its handling.
‘‘As an indication of frustration, it seems like a pretty significant step,’’ said Jeff Jones, Gallup Poll senior editor. ‘‘Leaving is another one, and we don’t have good data on that. But it does give a sense of the impact [the scandal] is having. And that the impact is greater than it was in 2002.’’
The poll about potentially leaving, which was conducted in January and February, also found that a quarter of Catholics said they had very little or no confidence in their US bishops (“and other Catholic leaders in this country”) and said the same about American priests. They have double the confidence levels, Gallup found, in their own parish priests and in Pope Francis.
A December Gallup poll looking at views of ‘‘honesty and ethical standards’’ in different fields found that a record-low 31 percent of US Catholics ranked clergy as having ‘‘high or very high’’ standards. That was down from 63 percent a decade ago and represented a drop of 18 percentage points from 2017.
A CBS News/New York Times poll in 2010 asked US Catholics whether the abuse issue was pushing them to consider leaving at a time when the American crisis wasn’t significantly in the news. Nine percent said yes, and 86 percent said no. When CBS asked the question in October, 26 percent said yes and 70 percent said no.