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The Continuing Cost of Catholicism's Sex Abuse Scandals

New research finds church attendance and charitable giving has significantly declined in areas directly impacted by clergy sex scandals.
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(Photo: Sági Elemér/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Sági Elemér/Shutterstock)

During his upcoming visit to the United States, Pope Francis will attempt to instill some fresh energy into American Catholicism, which desperately needs his holiness' help. According to a new Reuters analysis, the Catholic Church in the U.S. is dealing with deep financial problems, as well as shrinking congregations—52 million self-identified members this year, compared to 55 million in 2007.

While multiple factors underlie these trends, a recently published study suggests the clergy sex-abuse scandals of recent years have played a major and lasting role.

Economists Nicolas Bottan of the University of Illinois and Ricardo Perez-Truglia of Microsoft Research report there was "a significant decline in religious participation as a result of the scandals," as well as a parallel decline in charitable donations.

"The indirect cost of the scandals through the decline in giving is an order of magnitude higher than the direct costs of the scandals to the Catholic churches, such as the cost of lawsuit settlements," the pair write in their study, published in the Journal of Public Economics.

Revelations regarding pedophile priests have driven a significant number of Catholics away from the church—apparently for good.

In perhaps their most troubling finding, the researchers found the negative impacts of the scandals went beyond the Catholic Church itself. Former parishioners who abandoned the pews after the sex-abuse scandals not only stopped giving money to the church, but also reduced their overall charitable donations, according to the study.

Bottan and Perez-Truglia focused on 3,024 "scandal events" that became public between 1980 and 2010. Using a variety of sources, they looked at behavioral changes over time in the zip code either where the sexual abuse is alleged to have taken place, or where the accused priest currently works, whether or not the alleged abuse occurred there.

"We find that a scandal causes a persistent decline in the local Catholic affiliation and church attendance," they write. "Some Catholics join other religious denominations during the first three years after a scandal. But these individuals later end up with no religious affiliation."

Bottan and Perez-Truglia report the shock of the scandals didn't shake people's faith per se, as they had no significant effect on personal belief in God and the afterlife. However, their analysis of IRS data on itemized charitable contributions found a noticeable shift in behavior.

"We find that a scandal causes a persistent decline in charitable giving of about 1.3 percent in the affected zip code," the researchers write. Importantly, they saw a "large and statistically significant effect" on donations even when those to Catholic parishes and schools were excluded.

While the researchers aren't sure why giving to non-religious institutions declined, they suspect "the role of social interactions" was a major factor. "Religious networks can take advantage of unique conditions for eliciting charitable contributions from members," they note.

"One possibility is that households leaving the congregation discovered non-Catholic charities that provide social services similar to the Catholic charities, but they did not contribute to (them) because of the lack of social pressure they once faced while in the congregation."

Whatever the specific cause, the "effects on scandals on religious participation and charitable giving follow somewhat similar patterns," they write. "The effects increase in magnitude during the first couple of years after the scandal, and then they remain stable at that level. The affected outcomes do not revert to pre-scandal levels even more than 10 years after the occurrence of the scandal."

The one piece of good news they have for the church is that this dynamic seems to be geographically limited.

"The effects are mostly concentrated in the zip code in which the scandal occurs, with small spillovers to adjacent zip codes," they write. "When an accusation comes to light, it has similar consequences at the place where the accused priest is working at the time of the accusation, and, if different, at the place where the accused priest allegedly perpetuated the abuse."

So revelations regarding pedophile priests have driven a significant number of Catholics away from the church—apparently for good. But this effect appears to be largely restricted to people who learned such a predator was literally in their midst.

For the many communities where this occurred, the pressing issue is how to reach out to those people and convince them to return to their prior level of charitable giving. However exciting, a papal visit isn't likely to be of much help in that effort.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.