Megan McCabe was born into a Catholic family, attended Catholic high school and college, and now teaches at a Catholic university. But the 32-year-old didn’t attend Mass for more than a month following the August release of a Pennsylvania grand-jury report documented more than 1,000 cases of sexual abuse by clergy in the state.
“I had a moment when I felt like this institution doesn’t have any goodness in it,” said Ms. McCabe, choking up as she spoke.
The sexual-abuse scandals that have rocked the church this year have left some of the country’s most devoted Catholics questioning how to reconcile their longtime faith with the realities of the institution they rely on to channel it. For them, decisions that were once a given—like whether to attend mass, send their kids to Catholic school or even have their children baptized—have suddenly become agonizing.
There were 74.3 million Catholics in the U.S. as of 2017, down from 81.6 million just two years earlier, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit at Georgetown University. A Pew Research Center survey released this week found 72% of them approve of Pope Francis’ job performance job performance, the lowest of his pontificate and down 12 points since the start of the year. More than 60% of American Catholics think he is doing a fair or poor job handling the sexual-abuse issue.
“Our people still do believe in God,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski, of Miami, said to his priests last month. “But they don’t believe in us.”
Ms. McCabe was in high school outside Boston in 2002 when the broad extent of sexual abuse in the church was reported for the first time. Though polls show church attendance sharply dropped in the wake of the scandal, Ms. McCabe doesn’t remember talking about it much at school or at home. “I had no understanding of how bad things were,” she said.
Now, as a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., she is confronting the church’s history of abuse as an adult.
“It just hit me—the level of coverup,” she said of her reaction to the Pennsylvania report. “That’s what felt worse to me.”
She isn’t the only devout person in her family who has been struggling.
Her mother-in-law, Marybeth Brown, has been going to Catholic mass since she was a child, though she struggles to explain why she has continued amid the recent scandals. “It’s the only thing I’ve known in my entire life,” she said.
The 63-year-old remembers questioning what she should do when the priest at her Orange County, Calif., parish—where she had all four of her children baptized—was removed in 2001 amid allegations that he had affairs with adult women and abused teenage girls.
It was “a huge kick in the gut,” she said, but she stuck with the church.
Ms. Brown believed that after the 2002 crisis, church officials had addressed the problem. Recently, though, reports have emerged that clergy who helped cover up sexual abuse by priests in the past—or who had been accused of abuse themselves—remained in positions of power.
“I’m really disgusted,” said Ms. Brown. “This should not still be happening.”
She has tried to separate her faith in God from her disappointment with the church’s leadership.
“As far as my involvement and the feeling I used to get?” she said. “No. Now it’s more my sacrifice.”
Her priest, Father Brendan Mason, was a seminarian in Boston when the 2002 scandal broke and now leads the St. Edward the Confessor congregation in Dana Point, Calif. He said this year “is different.”
“Some people just want to move on—business as usual,” he said. “That’s not my sense from our parishioners. They want accountability.”
Not all Catholics are having crises of faith.
“The mediocre Catholics are the ones shying away from the church,” said Grace Ruiz, 46, after a recent service in Artesia, Calif., where a bishop addressed the scandal from the altar. “All these things don’t only happen to Catholics. They just highlight the Catholics.”
But many of the strongest reactions in churches have come from worshipers outraged by what they have learned about sexual abuse, or by how their leaders have responded.
The first Sunday after the Pennsylvania report was released, Mary Bradford—another lifelong Catholic whose husband converted to Catholicism before they married—walked out of her Annapolis, Md., church, angry that the priest asked parishioners to pray for the church before he mentioned the victims of sexual abuse.
The family has kept attending, but Ms. Bradford, 38, recently suggested to her husband that they look at other denominations.
“The message I’m receiving still seems to be, ‘How do we make sure everyone stays in the church?’ ” she said. “Part of me is like, geez, maybe the church needs to start over.”