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Five myths about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal

Still, it is hardly good news that the church appears to be no different from most other institutions in its incidence of abuse. Shouldn't the Catholic Church and other religious institutions hold to a higher standard?

4. Media outlets are biased against the Catholic Church.

While the Vatican and the pope's champions argue -- often in conspiratorial tones -- that the media is biased against the church, the truth is quite the opposite.

The church and the pope do receive major media attention, and with reason. The pope is a world leader as well as the temporal head of one of the world's most storied religious traditions. There are more than 1.1 billion Catholics on the planet, and the Catholic Church is the largest denomination in the United States, with more than 65 million baptized members. In the media, holidays such as Christmas and Easter tend to be dominated by Catholic images.

The pope also makes news with his pronouncements on a range of topics, and his travels are media events. Pope John Paul II's death and funeral in April 2005 produced wall-to-wall coverage for weeks, generating some of the most favorable press the church has ever had.

The annual survey of religion in the news conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that in 2008 -- the year Benedict traveled to Washington and New York -- coverage of the pope and of the Catholic Church accounted for more than half of all news stories about religion, and the majority were positive or explanatory. You don't hear the church complaining about this kind of attention.

5. The crisis will compel U.S. Catholics to leave the church.

When the initial revelations of widespread sexual abuse by clergy emerged in 2002, many believed that Catholics would abandon the church en masse, or at least send the institution toward insolvency by withholding donations. But then, as now, American Catholics turned out to be an unpredictable lot. Though critical of the bishops and the Vatican, Catholics tend to love their local parishes and priests. And even if they don't heed all church mandates, they don't easily shed all the cultural and sacramental markers of their faith.

A 2007 Pew survey of the religious landscape in America found that among Catholics who had left the church, the abuse crisis ranked low on the list of reasons -- well behind church teachings on homosexuality, the role of women, abortion and contraception. And a 2008 poll by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that even the bishops had enjoyed a rebound in approval, with satisfaction with the hierarchy growing from 58 percent in 2004 to 72 percent in 2008.

Still, Catholic leaders can't be complacent. Some 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, and without immigrants, the number of American Catholics would be falling, not growing slightly. In a competitive marketplace, it's not smart to put your customers' loyalty to such a test.

David Gibson is the author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and his Battle with the Modern World." He covers religion for He will be online on Monday, April 19, to chat with readers. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

From the archives . . . For recent Outlook coverage of the Catholic Church and the sexual abuse scandal, see "Time to Hear Pope Benedict's Confession" (March 28) by Sinead O'Connor and "Who is a Real Catholic?" (May 17) by David Gibson.

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