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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 19:48 GMT 20:48 UK
US Catholics worry for future
Protests outside Cardinal Law's residence in Boston
Abuse claims could be a serious financial drain
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By BBC News Online's Peter Gould

According to an opinion poll, more than 70% of Catholics in the United States believe the Church is in the midst of a crisis.

Many are very unhappy about the way it has dealt with - or rather has failed to deal with - the scandal of sexual abuse by priests.

But few say their own faith has been shaken by the revelations, and only 3% think they may now leave the Church.

The 63 million Catholics in the United States form the largest religious group in the country.

Social influence

But because it is such a diverse nation, Catholics remain a minority, making up just under 23% of the population.

American Catholic Church statistics
70% US Catholics believe Church in crisis
3% may leave US Catholic Church (From poll conducted by ABC News
23% US population Catholic - 63 million people in total (From Catholic Directory)
19,544 Catholic parishes in US (Catholic directory)
Hispanics account for a third of US Catholic Church community
It is nevertheless a significant minority that forms an important part of the social fabric of many towns and cities, and influences many aspects of American life.

The finances of the Catholic Church are difficult to unravel, as each diocese is a separate legal entity.

But globally, this is one of the wealthiest branches of the Church; with income from 19,544 parishes across the US estimated at $7.5bn annually.

The money supports a substantial infrastructure at parish and diocesan level, with a network of schools, colleges and hospitals across the country.

The Church provides education for 2.7 million pupils in elementary and high schools, making it the largest provider of private schooling in the nation.

Last year, the number of enrolments to Catholic schools was down slightly (by 1%) for the first time in a decade, but 43% of Catholic schools still have a waiting list.

Faithful flock

Estimates of the number of people who attend services regularly rely on the honesty of people questioned in surveys.

Convicted priest John Geoghan at his trial earlier this year
It is too soon to say whether the scandal has had any financial impact

But according to recent figures, 38% of Catholics say they go to mass once a week. That figure hides a big difference between Catholic women (49%) and Catholic men (26%).

But while congregations may be holding up, or even increasing, the number of priests remains a cause for concern.

With many approaching retirement age, there is concern that not enough new priests are being ordained to replace them.

For 30 years, the number of young men entering the priesthood was in steady decline.

But five years ago, enrolments to seminaries started to increase.

Financial drain

It is too soon to say what impact the current scandal has on these figures, and whether the anger of Catholics is reflected in a drop in collections and other donations... the lifeblood of the US Catholic Church.

With 46,000 ordained priests, the American Church is painfully aware of the damage even a tiny minority can do...both to the victims, and to the reputation of the Church

With fewer priests and nuns, the church may be increasingly forced to employ lay workers to do the administrative jobs, adding to the financial pressures on the American Church.

The money being paid out to victims of sex abuse will certainly be a serious drain on finances.

It has been estimated that the total bill could reach $1bn.

It is feared that some dioceses may have to sell off property, and cash in some investments to meet legal bills.

Since the mid-1980s, when cases of sexual abuse began to receive publicity, many insurance companies have refused to provide the Church with any new cover against such claims.

The worry is that social and educational programmes may now suffer, as many dioceses have to tighten their belts.

But the Catholic Church in the United States faces other challenges, not least in the way it develops its ministry in response to changing demographics.

Hispanic community

At present, about a third of the Church is drawn from the Hispanic community, and in younger age groups the figure is now 45% and growing.

Cardinal Bernard Law (r) ministers to a female congregational member in Boston
There is concern over how to rebuild public confidence in the Church

In California, for example, young Hispanics account for almost three-quarters of all Catholics under the age of 18.

The Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, speaks fluent Spanish.

He learned the language as a child, talking to immigrant workers on his father's farm.

It is a skill that is becoming more important in the American church. At present, there is a real shortage of Hispanic priests.

Unless the Church develops this part of its ministry, many of these young Hispanic Catholics could drift away.

There is already evidence that some are turning to fundamentalist and Pentecostal religions.

In the longer term, this could pose an ever greater threat to the future of the Church.

But the immediate concern is how to rebuild public confidence in the Church after the revelations over the abuse of children by its priests.

It has been estimated that between 1% and 2% of priests are guilty of sexual abuse.

But with 46,000 ordained priests, the American Church is painfully aware of the damage even a tiny minority can do... both to the victims, and to the reputation of the Church.

See also:

22 Apr 02 | Americas
Cardinal vows to fight sex abuse
16 Apr 02 | Americas
US cardinal welcomes Pope talks
09 Apr 02 | Americas
Abuse claims dog US priests
04 Apr 02 | Americas
Vatican sued in sex abuse cases
06 Apr 02 | Americas
Accused US priest found dead
08 Apr 02 | Americas
US priests suspended over sex claims
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