Despite predictions that the priest sex abuse scandal would lead to a collapse in contributions, American Catholics gave more money to the church last year than they did in 2001, according to a study released yesterday.
While overall giving increased slightly, the study suggests that Catholics targeted their dollars - giving more to local parishes and less to appeals by diocesan bishops, who received considerable blame for the scandal.
"People care about their parishes," said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which compiled the data. "They may not be happy with the bishops in general, but ... they know the parish still needs lights and music."
In another survey whose results were released yesterday, three in four Catholics who regularly attend Mass said they wanted greater financial accountability from the church - which has paid hundreds of millions to settle sex abuse cases.
The Gallup Organization survey also found that a significant number of Catholics thought the nation's bishops did a better job of handling the sex abuse crisis this year than in 2002.
Analysts attributed the bishops' improved standing to their efforts to publish some audits and to the performance of Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who has won general praise after taking over the Archdiocese of Boston, the epicenter of the scandal.
Viewed together, the results appeared to be good news for the beleaguered church as its bishops gather for the start of their national conference in Washington on Monday. .
However, Francis J. Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, which commissioned the Gallup survey, and Charles Zech, a Villanova University economist who analyzed the poll, warned that lay opinion of the church's leadership hinges on the willingness of bishops to become more accountable.
"People may forgive the bishops, but they are still going to expect transparency in church finances," said Zech.
The financial data released yesterday appeared to confirm anecdotal evidence over the past year. Instead of punishing the U.S. church financially, Catholics continue to support their local parishes.
Joseph Claude Harris, an independent researcher who analyzed the data, found that offertory collections grew by 4.9 percent from 2001 to 2002 - an increase of about $273 million. The increase is particularly striking because it occurred during an economic slump when giving to the nation's largest charities fell.
At the same time, pledges to diocesan appeals dropped by 2.3 percent, about $14 million. Half of that came in Boston, where pledges fell from $16 million in 2001 to $8.8 million in 2002.
Gautier warned against reading too much into the results, which were based on incomplete financial data provided by dioceses on a voluntary basis.
The Gallup survey, conducted in October, found that approval for the bishops' handling of the crisis increased from 35 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2003.
The number of Catholics who wanted greater financial accountability rose from 65 percent to 75 percent, which Butler attributed to increased awareness of the issue:
"The whole clergy sexual abuse crisis has been an educational moment for typical Catholics. Before that, they were a rather passive lot when it came to giving money. It was the old dictum: `Pay, pray and obey.'"
Now, Butler said, "They are beginning to ask questions: What actually happens to the support I give to the church? Does it end up in the pockets of tort lawyers or does it go for good purposes?"
Gallup surveyed 656 regular churchgoers in 2002. It contacted 309 of them again this year. Because of the relatively small numbers, the poll's margin of error is high - plus or minus 7 percentage points.