Pope Francis waves to faithful as he arrives in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican for his weekly general audience, Wednesday, March 6, 2019. Credit: Alessandra Tarantino | AP

The percent of U.S. Catholics who say the clergy sex abuse crisis has them questioning whether to leave the faith has jumped 15 points since the last major crisis in the early 2000s, a poll released Wednesday finds.

Thirty-seven percent of Catholics told Gallup that “recent news about sexual abuse of young people by priests” has them personally questioning whether to remain Catholic, compared with 62 percent who said it had not. Priest misconduct and its handling by clergy all the way to the papacy has exploded as a topic in the U.S. church since last summer, when a series of scandals began to rock the denomination, America’s largest. It’s the broadest such scandal in American Catholicism since the early 2000s, when 22 percent of U.S. Catholics told Gallup that clergy sex abuse news was pushing them to question staying, and 76 percent said it was not.

Experts on Catholic polling say considering leaving isn’t the same as leaving. Also, the current crisis is unfolding at a time when religious identity is deconstructing and fluid for many tens of millions of Americans, so Catholics leaving the option open can’t be wholly credited to anger over clergy abuse and its handling. But Gallup’s finding is a striking data point, pollsters say.

“As an indication of frustration, it seems like a pretty significant step,” said Jeff Jones, Gallup Poll senior editor. “Leaving is another one, and we don’t have good data on that. But it does give a sense of the impact [the scandal] is having. And that the impact is greater than it was in 2002.”

Gallup in recent months has been tracking problems in how U.S. Catholics see the institution of their church.

The poll about potentially leaving, which was conducted in January and February, also found that a quarter of Catholics said they had very little or no confidence in their U.S. bishops (“and other Catholic leaders in this country”) and said the same about American priests. They have double the confidence levels, Gallup found, in their own parish priests and in Pope Francis. A December Gallup poll looking at views of “honesty and ethical standards” in different fields found that a record-low 31 percent of U.S. Catholics ranked clergy as having “high or very high” standards. That was down from 63 percent a decade ago and represented a drop of 18 percentage points from 2017.

During that same period, the percent of U.S. Protestants who gave high or very high rankings for the ethics of their clergy dropped from 61 percent to 48 percent in the past decade, Gallup found.

Yet polling on something as complex as switching religious identity has shown widely varying results. A CBS News/New York Times poll in 2010 asked U.S. Catholics whether the abuse issue was pushing them to consider leaving – at a time when the American crisis wasn’t significantly in the news. Nine percent said yes, and 86 percent said no. When CBS asked the question in October, 26 percent said yes and 70 percent said no.

In the months between CBS’s fall poll and Gallup’s survey last month, the church was hammered with a slew of negative, dramatic news, including a frustrating national meeting of U.S. bishops, during which a major vote on abuse reform got delayed, and the historic defrocking of a cardinal. An explosive grand jury report about the Pennsylvania church that was released in the summer continued to be reported on through the fall and into 2019.

Laura Hogan, 47, has a rich Catholic history. The Vienna, Virginia, woman has three Catholic immigrant grandparents, went to Catholic schools as a child and in college (the University of Notre Dame), and was so fascinated by the rituals, prayers and saints that she became an expert in religious art history. At her parish, she works with people who are converting to Catholicism, and her 10-year-old son goes to the parish school.

“As I’ve gotten older, the sacraments have grown in importance for me,” she wrote to The Washington Post, and she can rattle off Catholic figures living and dead whom she looks to for inspiration in their ability to serve others and to overcome their circumstances.

She was living in Boston during the earlier crisis, which took off in that archdiocese, but it’s only now, with this new round, that Hogan feels seriously on the fence. She’s starting to mentally envision shifting to another part of Christianity (“I’ll still be under Jesus’ umbrella”), and says she’s completely fine if her older son, who is about to head to college, leaves their family faith.

Why now? It’s a combination of the crisis and the church’s direction overall, she said.

“I am different. I am older. I have two children and have seen one of them almost grown, and watched their friends and cousins grow. How can I look one of those children in the face if he or she is gay, and say ‘No, you can’t be fully yourself in the Catholic Church.’ Or tell a girl she can’t be a priest simply because of how she was born?” she wrote. The grand jury report produced a disappointing feeling of déjà vu, and more than that, she said.

“The hierarchy has betrayed us, and has gone on the defensive, when healing from betrayal requires accountability and transparency. I dream of my church dropping the defensiveness, displaying true, abject penitence in the face of the horrors of child sexual abuse and adult sexual coercion, and devoting itself to the humble service of those who have been harmed. Ceasing to lobby against statutes of limitations being extended. Ceasing to blame mature homosexuals for the predatory behavior of sick people and their power-hungry bosses,” Hogan wrote.

John Carr, a longtime official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and an advocate for the church on Capitol Hill, now runs a center that runs lectures and programs on how to understand and improve the church. A frank critic of the institution who recently told the public about his own experience with clergy abuse, Carr said one phenomenon he sees is the separating of the creed from the power brokers.

“People are asking, ‘Why am I a part of something so broken?’ Other people are saying, ‘I’m not going to let this define my faith,’ ” he said. “For some of us, it has deepened our faith in Jesus and tested our faith in the church. You go back to basics in times of trouble, and we’re in big trouble.”

The U.S. church has held its place in terms of size, in large part because of Latino immigration. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of Americans identify as Catholic, according to various surveys, and have for decades. The question is how the growth of the Latino church here will affect Catholics’ views.

Gallup said its sample pool wasn’t large enough to see whether there were disparities in views based on race or ethnicity. It did say there were no significant differences based on age or gender.

One area of vulnerability for the U.S. Catholic Church is growth. While a 2014 Pew Research Center survey said 59 percent of people raised Catholic remain of a Catholic identity – a retention rate similar to other major traditions – the church stands out for its dearth of new members. Thirteen percent of Americans are former Catholics, while 2 percent have become Catholic. The large-scale survey found a 6.5-to-1 ratio of people leaving Catholicism to joining it.

There isn’t much new data, but most people who left Catholicism don’t say sex abuse scandals were a factor – a 2008 survey (also by Pew) found fewer than 3 in 10 former Catholics say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave. Fewer than 1 in 20 volunteered the issue as a primary reason they left.

The Rev. Bryan Small, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Decatur, Georgia, said he’s especially worried about a younger generation of Catholics. He said just one parishioner has told him he was planning to leave the church, but Small fears there are others who quietly feel the same way.

“The scandal is not driving away the current leadership but [it is] the next generation,” Small said. “That has me concerned and scared, to be honest.”

The election of Pope Francis, he said, drew in many Small calls “cultural Catholics” – Catholics less likely to affiliate closely with the institution and attend Mass frequently. Now those Catholics are seriously questioning their faith, he said.

“We had scandal 1.0 in the early 2000s; here we are with scandal 2.0,” Small said. “People went to church out of social obligation and fear of hell. That’s way gone. Pastors have to be honest that people aren’t going to show up by inertia.”

Washington Post polling director Scott Clement contributed to this report.