ST. LEO, FL – Amid investigations of sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and other areas, a new Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey shows a drastic drop in Pope Francis’ favorability ratings.

The sum of respondents who say they view the pontiff very favorably or somewhat favorably sank below 50 percent.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute ( survey was fielded nationally online among 1,167 adults from October 11 through October 17, 2018. When all 1,167 answered questions, the margin of error for results is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points.

Saint Leo’s most recent poll shows the overall favorable opinion of Pope Francis is 44.7 percent while the August 2018 poll had his positive approval rating at 64.4 percent and 68.7 in the May 2018 poll. As part of a Catholic university, founded on Benedictine traditions, the Saint Leo University Polling Institute consistently polls on the public’s opinion of the pope. August polling was conducted mainly before the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report regarding rape and molestation by more than 300 priests over the course of 70 years.

Among Catholics, the new Saint Leo poll shows favorable opinions of Pope Francis also dropped significantly with 69 percent saying they hold a strongly favorable or somewhat favorable opinion, while 87.4 percent of Catholics polled in August 2018 held positive views of the pope and 84.2 percent of Catholics polled in May 2018 voiced similar opinions.

“I think it is relatively obvious that the drastic decrease in the pope’s overall favorability ratings is due to all that has happened since August regarding the clerical sex scandal,” said Dr. Marc Pugliese, an associate professor of religion and theology at Saint Leo University. “It’s almost as if something is being reported every other day. News has just come out about the Washington, D.C. attorney general’s investigation into abuse in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the Pennsylvania dioceses, and last week subpoenaed seven of the eight dioceses in that state. Doubtless all that is happening with the clerical sexual abuse scandal is the No. 1—if not the practically exclusive—factor in the considerable decline in the pope’s favorability ratings.”

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute presented three statements on the pope’s leadership on the issue of sexual abuse by clergy, and measured agreement. A large portion—74.2 percent—of poll respondents say they think it is the pope’s responsibility to make changes to stop sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic Church. Among Catholics, that figure is 81.4 percent.

Statements National – % who agree National Catholics – % who agree
It is the pope’s responsibility to handle and make changes to stop sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic Church 74.2 81.4
The quality of leadership the pope has demonstrated with the sexual abuse crisis within the church is good 36.0 53.3
I have faith in the leadership of the pope to successfully protect people from sexual abuse in the church going forward 34.1 59.1

“That 74.2 percent of Americans believe it is the pope’s responsibility to handle and make changes to stop sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is not surprising since the vast majority of non-Catholics view the pope as a sort of leader of the Catholic Church who has more power and responsibility than leaders in other institutions, including those that are religious,” Pugliese said.

While 53.3 percent of Catholics say Pope Francis has demonstrated good leadership amidst the crisis, 41.8 percent of poll respondents who identify as Christian, and 39.1 percent who identify as “other,” agree.

“Pope Francis has been a popular pope among both conservative and progressive Catholics alike in the United States,” said Pugliese, the Saint Leo religion and theology professor. “And since they are more ‘up close and personal’ with the pope and the church, Catholics probably generally know more of the complexities of the situation. For instance, many non-Catholics are unaware that in 2002, in response to the first wave of the current Catholic clerical sex abuse crisis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops established extensive procedures for addressing allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors as well as guidelines for preventing such abuse in the future.”

Those working with minors in the Catholic Church are required to undergo training in identifying, responding to, and preventing sexual abuse of minors in the church by anyone, Pugliese noted.

Poll respondents also were asked whether they were aware of the 1,400-page Pennsylvania grand jury report that said more than 300 Catholic priests had sexually abused children over seven decades and the abuse was covered up by church leaders. The poll shows 65.7 percent say they are very (27.0 percent) or somewhat (38.7 percent) aware, while among Catholics it was 71.9 percent with 35.1 percent being very aware and 36.8 percent being somewhat aware. Nationally, those who say they are unaware of the report was 27.8 percent with 6.4 percent saying they were unsure. Among Catholics, 23.1 percent report being unaware while 5 percent say they are unsure.

Those poll respondents were asked to rate the Catholic Church on its efforts to weed out and deal effectively with abuse. The polls shows 47.2 percent give a negative/poor rating to the church’s efforts to stem abuse while 20.5 percent offer a positive/good rating to the work done to deal with sexual abuse. Another 18.0 percent hold a neutral position.

There have been points of comparison to the Catholic Church’s efforts in the news. Recently a law firm published the names of 212 priests in the San Francisco area who have been accused of sexual misconduct. The leaders of those dioceses have been resistant to reveal the names of the accused clergy, Pugliese said. “People observe how the extent and gravity of the scandal is seeing the light of the day at the hands of others rather than church leaders,” he said. “Add to this the cover-ups and protection of accused clergy by the church, and this leads people to judge that the Catholic Church’s response and the pope’s leadership have been poor.”

While much of the abuse happened before Pope Francis became pope, “I think people see him as having a responsibility to do more in the midst of the scandal, for instance, in facilitating greater cooperation from the bishops and other local church leaders.”

Pope Francis on multiple issues of the day

In addition to looking at how Pope Francis is viewed on dealing with sexual abuse cases, the Saint Leo poll examines poll respondents’ views on his work in the areas of human rights, marriage and family, advancing the cause of the poor, migration/immigration, and environmental issues.

How would you rate the job Pope Francis is doing on… Strongly & Somewhat
Approve November 2017 – %
Strongly & Somewhat Approve February 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve May 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve August 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve October 2018 – %
Advancing the cause of the poor 65.6 66.9 64.9 65.7 52.0
Human rights 65.4 66.1 66.6 66.7 51.3
Environmental issues 53.0 55.9 55.2 58.3 45.3
Marriage and family issues 51.4 52.7 56.7 54.6 42.1
Migration / Immigration 49.8 51.3 53.0 53.8 40.6

Pugliese said the overall decline in public opinion of Pope Francis can be linked to the sentiment regarding the sex abuse cases. “The pope’s national favorability ratings on every specific issue that Saint Leo typically polls on—human rights, advancing the cause of the poor, environmental issues, marriage and family issues, and migration/immigration—have dropped by at least 12 percent or more since August,” Pugliese said. They are likewise substantially lower than November of last year. This, I believe, is primarily due to the clerical sexual abuse scandal.”

The August and previous polls showed approval for Pope Francis’ work on climate change remained steady (at above 50 percent) despite bad news and dire predictions regarding climate change. “However, in this poll, the pope’s approval rating on how well he is handling environmental issues dropped 13 percent from August,” Pugliese said.

“In my judgment, this sharp decline is not due to things like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s troubling global warming report released at the beginning of October, but rather due to the clerical sexual abuse scandal.”

About the Poll
METHODOLOGY: The poll sampled opinions of 1,167 respondents nationwide. The survey was conducted October 11 through October 17, 2018. All surveys were conducted using an online survey instrument. The poll has a +/- 3.0 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level (on a composite basis) with questions asked of all 1,167.

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.