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NBC Survey Offers Insight on Social Issues Facing Catholic Church

NBC Survey Offers Insight on Social Issues Facing Catholic Church

Survey Gives Insight on Social Issues Facing Catholic ChurchSurvey Gives Insight on Social Issues Facing Catholic Church

An NBC survey tackles questions Catholics have grappled with for years. Investigative Reporter Jodie Fleischer reports on the answers and reaction to them.

(Published Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019)

A vast survey of Catholic Church employees across America shows the people who know the church best — the priests, nuns and other religious employees — are deeply split on key issues facing parishes across nation.

The survey reveals diocesan priests are far more likely to view clergy abuse as a problem of the past, while nuns and other religious employees often consider sex abuse and misconduct to be major problems even today.

And just as Pope Francis considers expanding the role of women and married men in the church, the survey highlights vivid differences in how female and male employees view a host of religious reforms under the Vatican’s consideration.

NBC Owned Television stations collaborated to distribute the first-of-its-kind survey to more than 32,000 employee emails listed in the Official Catholic Directory. About 2,700 members of the church workforce responded, including more than 400 priests.

Father Paul Sullins and the Rev. Eileen McCafferty DiFranco did not participate in the survey, but each has very strong beliefs about the questions posed, including how church workers feel about whether they should even be priests.

"I accept the decisions of the pope with regard to such things," said Sullins, adding that because one of the priest's main roles is to stand before his flock in the place of Christ, a man, it makes sense for all priests to be male.

"The objection to a woman being ordained priest is not based upon the function or the efficiency or the capability of that woman," Sullins said.

Explore the full survey results

When asked if the church should consider ordaining women as priests, nearly 58% of those who responded to the survey said no, it's settled doctrine.

"It’s exactly what I would expect,” said DiFranco. "If you work for the diocese you have to take a vow of obedience, so you’re going to spout the party line."

But nearly 60% of the workers surveyed said the church should consider ordaining women as permanent deacons. DiFranco says they would preach from a different viewpoint than men. And she would know, she already identifies as a Catholic priest of a small congregation in Pennsylvania.

"I could have been a Lutheran," said DiFranco. "But I felt that’s not what God wanted me to do."

DiFranco said she was ordained by three female bishops who were consecrated by a male bishop in good standing, in secret.

"Our ordination is valid, but the church considers it elicit," DiFranco said.

"They're not Catholic," said Sullins. "I mean, they may call it, people can call themselves anything they want."

DiFranco says some of her congregants are survivors of the sex abuse scandal. Others feel the church has abandoned them.

"When I marry gay people or straight people, the same look of love is in their eyes,” said DiFranco.

But in our NBC survey, more than 56% of respondents were against the church recognizing same-sex marriages.

There were some more progressive answers, however. More than 65% said the church should consider ordaining married men as priests.

Explore the full survey results

"Celibacy is a great gift and a great power in the church," said Sullins. "And I'm in a position to see that maybe better than other people are."

Why? Because he's married — with three children.

Sullins began as an Episcopal priest but later felt he identified more with the Catholic faith, so he converted.

"It's a very difficult, demanding life, I think, for any married clergyman," said Sullins.

Which is why he said he should not be an example for everyone. His designation prevents him from leading a parish. He serves as an assistant pastor.

"While there's pros and cons, it's generally not a good idea, would be my conclusion to it," Sullins said.

An estimated 120 married priests across the U.S. are exempted from the rule of celibacy. They were already married before ordination. No priest is allowed to marry after they've been ordained.

He acknowledges some find his thinking hypocritical.

"One man said once, 'Well, you kind of cheated,'" recalled Sullins. "It's not something that I planned. It's a grace that I've been given."

But Sullins acknowledged that being a parent has given him added perspective on certain issues.

"A lot of the priests that I talked to and particularly some of the bishops that I've talked to do not understand how parents feel about the safety of their children. They just kind of don't get it," Sullins said. "But when you've had a child ... it becomes a whole different issue emotionally."

Explore the full survey results

Eight of the survey's 26 questions asked about the clergy sex abuse scandal. Nearly 82% said it was handled properly by the church.

"That's crazy. They want to believe that they're doing the right thing," said Jim Bucci, an abuse survivor who grew up in Prince George's County, Maryland.

Now 58, Bucci was a student and altar boy at St. John the Evangelist Church in Clinton, where he says two priests abused him, beginning when he was just 8 years old.

"I was taught how to do it, what to do, what made him feel good," Bucci told the I-Team.

Local Abuse Survivors React to NBC Survey of Catholic ChurchLocal Abuse Survivors React to NBC Survey of Catholic Church

For the roughly two million Catholics who live in D.C., Maryland and Virginia -- clergy sex abuse has caused heartache and distrust. So the News4 I-Team partnered with NBC-owned stations around the country to see what people who work within the Catholic Church think about where it stands now. Investigative Reporter Jodie Fleischer has more on what we found.

(Published Monday, Nov. 25, 2019)

He says one of the priests told him he was satisfying God while performing the abusive acts. Bucci says, at the time, he didn't understand what was happening, that it was wrong.

"Over time, I started not to want to do things. And so, he raped me, and I fought back after he raped me," said Bucci, who was a teenager by then.

He says he turned to alcohol and then drugs, even landing in prison at age 30. A therapist eventually helped him see that it wasn't his fault, though he says he hated God for a long time.

"I had so much anger," Bucci said. "It will never go away. I learn to not let it enslave me anymore, to rule my life, to hurt over it."

Becky Ianni shares Bucci's belief that workers within the church would, of course, be quicker to defend it.

She heads the Virginia chapter of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests and found some contradiction within the survey results.

"If you handled something properly, then wouldn't you be 100% thinking that it's no longer a problem?” Ianni told the I-Team.

But when the survey asked that question, 39% of respondents said sex abuse/misconduct in the Catholic Church "is still a major problem."

"It's still going on. It's going on worldwide because they're still protected and the priests know they're protected," said Bucci. "They know that the church is going to back them up."

“They don't square," Ianni said of the answers from the survey's respondents. "It's almost like they were confused within themselves."

Explore the full survey results

Bill Donohue with the Catholic League says it isn't confusion. He blames media coverage, which he says ramped up as the sex abuse scandal was ending.

"You get this projection that this is still going on," said Donohue. "Most of the bad guys, most of the priests who molested are either dead or they're out of ministry."

Donohue says abuse by priests was never more of a problem than in any other field that cares for children. Of our survey responses, 46% echoed that.

"There are so many bogus stories out there and there are gold diggers," said Donohue. "It's easier to sue the Catholic Church and get money; the bishops will write a check."

But that differs from what our survey found. Of those who responded, 81% thought victims who sued the diocese are mostly or usually telling the truth. Only 3% thought they were usually making up stories.

Becky Ianni before the abuse began, and Ianni after the abuse began (inset).
Photo credit: Becky Ianni

Ianni says it could be decades before we know if abuse is still happening now.

"The average age that someone comes forward is something like 52. I didn't come forward til 48," she said.

She saw an old family photo that triggered flashbacks, eventually unlocking memories of abuse by a priest in Northern Virginia.

"I buried it completely. I didn't remember him at all," said Ianni. "But it affected me my whole life."

She says one of the most telling questions in our survey was whether church workers would allow their child to go on an overnight retreat supervised by clergy or a person of trust within their parish. More than half said no — or only with some chaperones, but not others.

Donohue says that's a reflection of life today, not the church.

"How many of those people would also have reservations if it was a camp counselor, it was a Boy Scout director, somebody else in the local neighborhood?" Donohue said.

Explore the full survey results

Today, neither Bucci nor Ianni consider themselves Catholic. The priests involved in their abuse have since died. The church eventually found both of their claims credible and paid each a settlement.

"Now my justice is that I still believe in God," said Bucci.

But Ianni says the way her case was handled by the church destroyed her faith.

"I felt abandoned not only by the church, I felt abandoned by God. And so, I pulled away from both," she said.

"If you ask Catholics today if they trust how the bishops have handled sexual abuse allegations against priests, a vast majority of them would say the bishops have done a very poor job. I would be among them," said Father Sullins.

He said the survey's findings could be reflective of interpretation by the respondents, suggesting that said some of the questions' wording could be misinterpreted.

"Something could be settled doctrine and I could still think it needs further study," Sullins said, as an example.

He also questioned the survey's sample size and response rate as being representative of the larger population of church workers.

Explore the full survey results

But Mark Gray, a senior research associate with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown non-profit that specializes in Catholic polls, said the answers are consistent with what he'd expect from a survey of church workers.

"Of this population, there's just a handful. So, it's the newest and well-done survey that I've seen," said Gray, who advised NBC on how to ask some of the questions and the possible answers.

Gray said the results show lots of support for local parishes, for Pope Francis and for the traditions and doctrine established over centuries.

"I think it's actually a good portrait of where the church is now," said Gray. "It's very resistant to change, as are, I think, some people working in it and the results, I think, bear that out."

The I-Team wanted to share our results with the new Archbishop of Washington to see if he thinks they're reflective of the church's future; his spokesperson declined our request for an interview.

Explore the full survey here.

Quotes from Regional Catholic Church Employees

As a Church employee you have a unique perspective on how Catholic institutions work. What would you like American Catholics and the public at large to know about the inner workings of the Church?

Source: NBC Survey
Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBC Washington

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