Saint Leo U Survey Indicates Pope’s Favorability, Opinion of Church Improves

ST. LEO, FL – A new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute ( shows a large number of Americans—81.3 percent—strongly and somewhat agree that the Catholic Church was slow to identify and act on sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy. Among Catholics polled, 89.3 percent agree that the Church was slow to take action on abuse.

The survey was fielded nationally online among 1,000 adults from April 22 through April 29. When all 1,000 answered questions, the margin of error for results is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points.

As part of a Catholic university, founded on Benedictine traditions, the Saint Leo University Polling Institute surveys on topics that affect Catholics and the public’s opinion of the pope.

“It is clear that a great majority think the Church has been slow in identifying and acting on sexual abuse with Catholic clergy over the years,” said Dr. Marc Pugliese, associate professor of religion and theology at Saint Leo University. “Many of the cases coming to light are from decades ago, and even after this problem in the Catholic Church started getting widespread attention 20 years ago, many more cases have emerged. I would add, there is the perception that the Church only started to really act because it was finally forced to do so.”

The new poll shows nearly three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) say that preserving and protecting the Catholic Church’s influence and reputation at all cost was a reason for the slow action on abuse. Among Catholics, the percentage is higher at 84.8.

Poll respondents reviewed several possible reasons the Catholic Church was slow to react to the sexual abuse crisis involving its clergy. The chart indicates what percentages agree with reasons offered for slow action. Reasons are depicted in declining order according to overall national results.

Reasons for Slow Church Action National – % National Catholics – %
To preserve and protect the Church’s influence and reputation at all cost 74.0 84.8
To avoid the financial ramifications 41.5 41.6
To protect “the good old boys’ network” 41.3 40.0
Believed the clergy instead of victims 37.6 26.4
Belief that clergy were above the law 34.1 24.0
Ineptitude / lack of experienced oversight or leadership 24.8 36.0
Church hierarchy was unaware of the abuse 8.2 6.4
Unsure 5.4 5.6
Other 2.2 3.2
None of these 0.7

“By a very wide margin, preserving and protecting the Church’s influence and reputation at all costs was the reason most believed by poll respondents to account for why the Catholic Church was slow to act or react to the sexual abuse crisis,” Pugliese said. “Financial ramifications and the ‘good old boys’ network were the next two highly selected reasons, but in my judgment these two cannot be separated from the power and reputation reason.”

Pugliese said in his opinion, “I think fear of the financial implications has been a prime factor in the Church’s not acting on the widespread sexual abuse in its ranks.”

The Saint Leo poll also asked respondents which, of several factors, may have contributed to the sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy through the years.  The following table displays the factors and results for national respondents and Catholics nationally. Respondents could choose all that they think apply.

Contributing Factors National – % National Catholics – %
Abuse was handled internally – within the Church / abusive priests were unafraid 52.4 65.7
Lack of oversight by church leadership 48.8 47.9
Celibacy required of Catholic priests 44.3 52.1
Lack of individual priest morality / respect for the law and victims 42.7 43.6
Blind or too much faith in Catholic clergy 39.1 42.1
The 1960s sexual revolution / lax morality 10.1 11.4
None of these 8.9 4.3

More than three-quarters, 79.5 percent, of respondents say they agree (strongly or somewhat) that Church hierarchy should require mandatory reporting of sexual abuse by clergy to appropriate law enforcement officials outside of the Church. Among Catholics, 93.6 percent agree. The poll asked if new, greater scrutiny of clergy by bishops suggests the Church hierarchy is taking the crisis more seriously and 63.5 percent of those polled agree while 78.6 percent of those who say they are Catholic agree. Among overall poll respondents, 48.4 percent—and 55.7 percent of Catholics—say more scrutiny will mean less abuse in the future.

Shortly after the polling was conducted, on May 9, Pope Francis issued a document called Vos estis lux Mundi (You are the Light of the World) that establishes new procedures for reporting abuse and violence and states that bishops and religious superiors will be held accountable for their actions. The new norms for the church’s handling of clerical sexual abuse begin June 1, Pugliese said.

“Clearly the public believes that the hierarchy knew about the abuse,” he said. “This, I think, is the one main reason for the public outrage. Church leaders knew about, but covered up, what in the estimation of many is the most deplorable of crimes.”

The Saint Leo Polling Institute expert said the new apostolic letter issued by Pope Francis shows progress is being made. “There are clear procedures for investigating accused bishops, and bishops who fail to comply with civil law are liable to ecclesiastical censure. There are references to abuses of power and taking advantage of vulnerable persons, as well as protections for whistleblowers.”

The new legislation mandates that priests and nuns report to Church authorities both sexual abuse and cover-ups of sexual abuse, but it does not expressly mandate reporting to civil authorities, Pugliese said.

Although allowing this represents progress, abuse survivors simultaneously fault Vos estis lux mundi for not requiring notification to law enforcement.

Opinion of Pope Francis

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute has measured public opinion of the pope throughout his papacy. Polling shows the favorability rating for Pope Francis—those who strongly or somewhat approve of the pope—increased after a significant drop in October 2018. Favorable ratings in October 2018, February 2019, and April 2019 were 44.7 percent; 55.6 percent, and 57.9 percent, respectively.

Looking at Saint Leo poll data since 2015, the pope’s highest favorability rating was 75.8 percent in September 2015 with 70.5 percent in March 2017 being the next highest. October 2018’s 44.7 percent was his lowest favorability rating.

In the April 2019 poll, the overall favorable opinion (strongly and somewhat approve) of the Catholic Church in the United States changed little from 37.2 percent in February 2019 to 40.1 percent in April 2019. Among Catholics, the favorable opinion (strongly and somewhat) was 57.1 percent in April 2019, compared with 62.5 percent in February 2019.

“Over the past four years, the Saint Leo poll has a seen a regular pattern of the pope’s favorability ratings being highest in the late spring, gradually declining through the summer into the fall, and then starting to rise again around Christmas through the pinnacle again in the spring,” Pugliese said. “The general increase in favorable views of the Catholic Church since this past February may also be due to this annual pattern that we typically see.”

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute also reviewed issues Pope Francis is addressing and asked respondents to provide their opinions on his efforts. The table displays the national cumulative totals for strongly and somewhat approve answers.  Results are displayed in declining order by the approval column for April 2019.

How would you rate the job Pope Francis is doing on… Strongly & Somewhat Approve February 2018- % Strongly & Somewhat Approve May 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve August 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve October 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve February 2019 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve April 2019 – %
Human rights 66.1 66.6 66.7 51.3 58.9 62.5
Advancing the cause of the poor 66.9 64.9 65.7 52.0 59.6 62.0
Environmental issues 55.9 55.2 58.3 45.3 46.0 47.3
Marriage and family issues 52.7 56.7 54.6 42.1 43.5 44.7
Migration / Immigration 51.3 53.0 53.8 40.6 40.9 41.3
Handling cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy 40.5 44.3 46.5 30.8 31.4 29.0
Handling cases of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops 30.1 27.2

“There has been a clear pattern in public opinion regarding how well of a job Pope Francis is doing on individual issues during the last couple of years,” said Pugliese, the assistant professor of religion and theology. “For almost two years now, the pope has consistently received the highest ratings for the job he is doing on advancing the cause of the poor and human rights, followed by the job he is doing on environmental issues.”

His handling cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy receives the lowest approval ratings, Pugliese added.

“This April 2019 poll’s results match this pattern,” he said. “However and notably, the approval ratings for the job the pope is doing on each of these issues has gradually decreased over the past two years.”

Pope Francis actively works in the areas that the poll surveyed, Pugliese said. “But the decline in the approval ratings for the job the pope is doing on each of these individual issues has other causes, and the proportions to which the clerical sexual abuse scandal has grown is probably chief among them.”

About the Poll

METHODOLOGY: This national survey was conducted from April 22 through April 29, 2019, among a base of 1,000 respondents nationally, using an online instrument. The national sample has an associated margin of error of +/- 3.0 percent at a 95 percent confidence level.

During the same time frame, the same online survey was administered to a sample of 500 residents of Florida. The Florida poll has a +/- 4.5 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level (on a composite basis).

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive—usually $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can also be found here: You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.

Media contacts: Mary McCoy, Saint Leo University, University Communications or (352) 588-7118 or (813) 610-8416 (cell/text).

Jo-Ann Johnston, Saint Leo University, University Communications or (352) 588-8237 or (352) 467-0843 (cell/text).

More About Saint Leo University
Saint Leo University ( is a modern Catholic teaching university that is firmly grounded in the liberal arts tradition and the timeless Benedictine wisdom that seeks balanced growth of mind, body, and spirit. The Saint Leo University of today is a private, nonprofit institution that creates hospitable learning communities wherever students want to be or need to be, whether that is a campus classroom, a web-based environment, an employer’s worksite, a military base, or an office park. Saint Leo welcomes people of all faiths and of no religious affiliation, and encourages learners of all generations. The university is committed to providing educational opportunities to the nation’s armed forces, veterans, and their families. Saint Leo is regionally accredited to award degrees ranging from the associate to the doctorate, and the faculty and staff guide all students to develop their capacities for critical thinking, moral reflection, and lifelong learning and leadership.

The university remains the faithful steward of the beautiful lakeside University Campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, where its founding monks created the first Catholic college in the state in 1889. Serving nearly 12,000 students, Saint Leo has expanded to downtown Tampa, to other sites in Florida and beyond, and maintains a physical presence in seven states. The university provides highly respected online learning programs to students nationally and internationally. More than 93,000 alumni reside in all 50 states, in Washington, DC, in three U.S. territories, and in 76 countries.