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Catholics view child sex abuse scandal as top issue

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:30 p.m.

As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect a new pope, Roman Catholics view the child sexual abuse scandal as the greatest problem facing the church, a recent survey found.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted Feb. 28 to March 3 found that 34 percent of Catholic respondents named sexual abuse as the most important issue. That's nearly four times the second-most common response, a lack of credibility or trust, cited by 9 percent of surveyed Catholics.

“Just to know a priest would take advantage of a child is frightening,” Heather Bierer, 34, of West View said while on her way to noon Mass last week at St. Mary of Mercy Church, Downtown. Like the many Catholics surveyed nationally, she cited the sex abuse scandal as the church's most pressing problem.

Members of other faiths probably would have named it, too, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“We'd like to put it behind us, but if people are still looking at it, we need to address it,” he said.

Pew Research Center, a subsidiary of Pew Charitable Trusts, polls the public about issues, attitudes and trends shaping America.

Lengwin and Jerry Zufelt, a spokesman for the Greensburg Diocese, questioned the size of the sample, only 184 Catholics.

That resulted in a margin of error of 8.2 percentage points for their responses, meaning an answer that draws 34 percent of Catholics could really range between 26 percent and 42 percent.

“Pew does great work, but this sample is so small and there's no indication of age or frequency of Mass attendance,” Zufelt said.

Nicholas Cafardi, former dean of the Duquesne University School of Law, said he was not surprised that the sex abuse scandal ranked first in the survey.

“Most of the cases today are old cases, but the reporting makes it seem that they're current,” he said.

Cafardi attributes a decline of cases in recent years to a zero-tolerance policy enacted by American bishops in Dallas in 2002. Under the policy, no priest with a credible charge of child sexual abuse may remain in the ministry, he said. Cafardi wrote about the issue in his book, “Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops' Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children.”

In accordance with that policy, Lengwin said the diocese last week wrote alumni of Serra Catholic High School in McKeesport when it learned that Kenneth Ghastin, a Franciscan brother who taught at Serra between 1983 and 1991, was alleged to have been involved in sexual abuse in Boston. Lengwin said there has never been any allegation against him here, but the diocese is awaiting a response from alumni.

The survey cited two issues as tying for third place: the church's being outdated and low attendance at Mass or a loss of followers. The lack of a pope was named the fifth biggest issue at 5 percent.

P.J. Malloy, 34, of Baldwin said the need to get Catholics to believe in their faith is paramount.

“It seems a lot of people gave up too early,” he said.

Joe Kerker, 35, of Steubenville, Ohio, also cited a decline in faith.

“We need more people who know what the Church teaches,” he said.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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