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Polls show overwhelming support for new pope, hope for addressing clergy sex abuse

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 7:50 a.m. MDT

Pope Francis celebrates his installation Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Tuesday, March 19, 2013.

Andrew Medichini, Associated Press

New polls say large majorities of American Catholics are pleased with the election of Pope Francis, and the top issue they would like him to tackle is handling cases of sex abuse committed by clergy.

The Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life found 73 percent of Roman Catholics were pleased with the selection of Pope Francis. A CNN survey showed 88 percent approved of the election.

"When asked about a list of possible priorities for the new pope, seven-in-10 Catholics say that addressing the sex abuse scandal should be 'a top priority' for Francis," the Pew report stated. "U.S. Catholics as a whole attach less importance to other possible priorities on the list."

CNN found nine-in-10 Catholics surveyed want stricter policies toward sexual abuse committed by priests.

But a Washington Post story suggested the new pope may not be as aggressive in addressing the sex abuse scandals as North Americans want him to be.

Reporter Nick Miroff tells the story of Father Julio Cesar Grassi, a convicted sex offender who remains free on a conditional release after being sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009 for molesting a prepubescent boy in his care.

"Yet in the years after Grassi’s conviction, Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio — now Pope Francis — has declined to meet with the victim of the priest’s crimes or the victims of other predations by clergy under his leadership," Miroff reported. "He did not offer personal apologies or financial restitution, even in cases in which the crimes were denounced by other members of the church and the offending priests were sent to jail."

There is no evidence Bergoglio covered up abuse cases and, according to the story, rights groups say the archbishop's resolve against clergy child abuse has strengthen over the years.

Other analyses cited other signs of expected change under Francis. David Gibson of Religion News Service and John Allen Jr. with the National Catholic Reporter noted several instances in the days since the papal election of gestures and statements signaling a new era of openness and reform.

"Francis reappointed the heads of Vatican departments of the scandal-plagued Roman Curia, as expected, but did so only provisionally. The Vatican stressed that the pope 'wants to take some time to reflect, pray and discuss before making any definitive appointment or confirmation.' When Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, he reappointed all the curial chiefs for the rest of their five-year terms, locking in a dysfunctional management team that was the focus of much criticism from the cardinals who elected Francis to clean house," Gibson wrote.

Despite overwhelming support among American Catholics, the CNN poll found nearly three-quarters of American Catholics say they are more likely to follow their own conscience on difficult moral questions than the teachings of the pope.

Both surveys said large majorities want Francis to allow Catholics to use birth control, allow priests to marry, and allow women to become priests. But the Pew survey also found fewer Catholics believe those changes will happen anytime soon.

"About half of U.S. Catholics (53 percent) say the church definitely or probably will change its position over the next 40 years or so to allow Catholics to use birth control. And roughly four-in-ten Catholics expect that by the year 2050 the church will allow priests to marry (39 percent) and will allow women to become priests (37 percent)."

CNN also polled on the volatile issues of divorce and abortion.

"By a 52 percent to 46 percent margin, they say Francis should allow Catholics to divorce and remarry without annulment," CNN stated. "But by a 55 percent to 44 percent margin, American Catholics don't want the pope to make church doctrine on abortion less strict."

email: mbrown@deseretnews.com

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