Why More Americans Than Ever Are Leaving the Catholic Church After Sex Abuse Crisis

People line up to receive communion during Palm Sunday Mass at Cathedral of the Incarnation Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo: Courtney Pedroza/The Tennessean )

On Palm Sunday, Barbara Hoover exited Brougher Chapel with a palm frond in her left hand.

The 76-year-old retiree sized up the church in front of her and sighed, visibly upset. “I don’t know why I’m still here,” she said, throwing her hands up. “I don’t know why I still go. I guess the ritual.”

In Portland, Oregon, Norma Rodriguez, 51, hustled up the steps of St. Mary’s Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, eager to get a good seat before the service started.

A lifelong Catholic, Rodriguez attends Mass weekly, praying for everyone she knows. She hasn’t been deterred by the sex abuse crisis that’s engulfed the Catholic Church for the better part of two decades. It’s not her place to pass judgment, Rodriguez said.

“This whole thing, it makes me pray more,” she said. “It just makes me pray for humanity, makes me pray for forgiveness.”

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sara and Nathan Hofflander brought their three young daughters to Palm Sunday Mass, then joined the bustle of people chatting and enjoying a hot meal during St. Lambert’s yearly parish dinner. Plates filled with turkey and potatoes. The parents corralled their girls – ages 5, 3 and 1 – and found a spot near a window.

Sara Hofflander, 32, grew up Catholic and Nathan Hofflander, 40, joined the church in 2011. The fallibility of clergy doesn’t faze him. “We are all broken in some way,” he said. “We’re not all perfect.”

The Catholic Church in the U.S. is at a crossroads. As millions of devout followers filled the pews this Easter season to celebrate the religion’s most important holiday, others hovered at the door, hungry for community and spiritual guidance but furious at the church’s handling of the decades-long sex abuse crisis that’s resulted in young children being raped and abused by priests who were often protected by their superiors.

Seven months after a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that 1,000 children had been abused at the hands of more than 300 priests, and as state attorneys general across the nation investigate the church, a Gallup poll published in March found that 37% of U.S. Catholics are considering leaving the church because of the sex abuse crisis and the church’s handling of it. That’s up significantly from 2002, when just 22% of Catholics said they were contemplating leaving their religion after The Boston Globe published an explosive series that initially exposed the abuse and subsequent cover-up.

On Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week, the USA TODAY Network sent 13 reporters out to parishes across the country to talk with dozens of Catholics about their faith and the scandal that has bankrupted churches after million dollar settlements, exposed thousands of accused priests and left unknown numbers of victims struggling to rebuild their childhoods, families and spiritual lives. Reporters visited white, black, Latino and Asian majority churches in cities and rural areas from California to New York, from Florida to Guam, as priests across the world spoke of repentance, forgiveness and, ultimately, new life.

In the Bible, Jesus’ crucifixion gives way to death and mourning. Three days later, resurrection comes, along with the hope of new beginnings. Many Catholics – most of whom were raised in the faith and can’t imagine celebrating major milestones without it – want the church to have a similar rebirth. But as church leaders, led by the pope in Rome, continually refuse total transparency and justice for victims, some wonder if that renewal will ever come.

In El Paso, Texas, Maria Pacheco normally watches Mass from home, when she tunes into a Spanish-language TV station. But on Palm Sunday, a friend offered her a ride to church. Pacheco attended the first Mass of the day at St. Paul the Apostle, a mostly Hispanic Catholic parish with services in English and Spanish.

Pacheco’s seen a lot in the news about the abuse crisis. She finds it abhorrent. The scandal hasn’t driven Pacheco, 76, away from church, but she does have doubts.

“I think it has made me lose trust in priests in general,” she said in Spanish. “Sometimes I wonder, if I were to come and say confession, would he have committed worse things?”

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SOURCE: USA Today, Lindsay Schnell