Affiliation, Before and After Scandal

Author: Carter, Shannon


In the wake of the sexual abuse scandal that is roiling Penn State’s football program, some are wondering whether there could be long-term effects on recruiting, donations and the long-term reputation of the university.

Many experts in higher education who have seen other universities weather crises expect the impact of the events at Penn State to fade within a year. But another precedent for how people might react is the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the last decade.

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted in 2008 found that Americans who had left Catholicism had done so for many reasons, including unhappiness with the church’s position on abortion or homosexuality, disagreement with teachings on birth control, and the feeling that their spiritual needs were not being met. But the survey also found that about a quarter of those saying they had abandoned Catholicism cited sexual abuse by members of the clergy as a reason for either leaving religion altogether or affiliating with a different denomination.

A new study by Daniel M. Hungerman, an economist at the University of Notre Dame, estimates that the Catholic Church in the United States lost about two million members — or 3 percent of its American membership — because of the sexual abuse scandals, and that donations to other religious groups rose by $3 billion in the five years after the first significant news reports of the abuses.

Using data from the Official Catholic Directory, the General Social Survey (which is conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago), the Pew Forum and the Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Hungerman concludes that disaffected Catholics who have cited the abuse scandals as a primary reason for leaving the church have joined denominations that — unlike, say, the Episcopal Church — are not necessarily very similar to Catholicism.

In fact, Mr. Hungerman’s analysis concludes that Southern Baptists, as well as other denominations quite different from Catholicism, have gained a notable number of new members who fled the Catholic Church. “It could be that Catholics came to associate the scandal with some constellation of attributes provided by the Catholic Church, and so defecting Catholics sought out groups with entirely different attributes,” Mr. Hungerman wrote.

The Pew Forum data cited by Mr. Hungerman showed that of those who left Catholicism because of the abuse scandals, 6 percent converted to a Baptist church and 17 percent converted to “other Christian” churches, defined as separate from the “mainline” Protestant denominations like the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians, which drew 8 percent of those Catholics disaffected by the scandals. Only 2 percent joined Episcopalian congregations.

Of course, Catholics may have joined another denomination for entirely different reasons. Instead of making a protest decision, they may simply have changed churches because of geography, the influence of friends, availability of children’s programs and other pastoral services and the atmosphere in a particular community.

In fact, the largest group of people who left Catholicism as a result of the scandals were the 51 percent who were “unaffiliated” with any religion, according to the Pew data. That is very similar to the 54 percent of lapsed Catholics who became unaffiliated simply because they had “drifted away” from their faith.