Vatican City

Pope's popularity transcends Catholicism in Italy

More people drawn to pews, priest sex-abuse a dwindling concern

Pope's popularity transcends Catholicism in Italy

Vatican City, April 12 - Ever since he was named pontiff one month ago and opted to present himself without the traditional papal red cape trimmed with ermine, Pope Francis has had no shortage of admirers drawn to his modest, down-to-earth touch. That popularity extends to Catholics and non-Catholics alike in Italy, according to a new poll Friday that shows four out of five Italians view Francis favorably. Fully 92% of Catholics told pollsters IPR Marketing that they found Francis to be close to the faithful, humble, determined, appealing to the young, authoritative, and also sincere. About 77% of non-Catholics expressed similar positive opinions. Although 60% of Italians polled say they want the newly elected pontiff to give top priority to dealing with sexual abuse by priests, that number has fallen from one month ago, according to the survey. Last month, as many as 67% wanted the new pope to deal with the long-standing problem of priest pedophilia, said the opinion poll, which surveyed the opinions of 1,000 Italians. Opinions may have been swayed by the new face of the Catholic Church, who, unlike his predecessor, is seen as a Vatican outsider with no direct involvement in the priest sex-abuse coverups. Benedict XVI, who abdicated in February over "declining physical and mental strength", had directly overseen the issue when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church's doctrinal watchdog, before becoming pope. Last week, Francis pledged to maintain the same line of "decisive" action adopted by Benedict in dealing with child sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church. In a meeting with Mons. Gerhard Ludwig Muller, who is in charge of paedophilia issues in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Francis said he would "continue in the line wanted by Benedict XVI". A Vatican statement explained that this meant "acting decisively as regards cases of sexual abuse, promoting measures that protect minors, above all; help for those who have suffered such violence in the past; necessary procedures against those found guilty; (and) the commitment of bishops' conferences in formulating and implementing the necessary directives in this is area that is so important for the church's witness and credibility". The Catholic Church has been rocked in recent years by a long series of paedophilia scandals, most of which emerged under Benedict's eight-year papacy, although in many cases the abuse dates back decades and was hidden by the clergy. In cases in countries including the United States, Ireland, Australia, Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Italy, the Church was found to have discouraged victims from reporting abuse to the police. There were also a number of documented cases of Church authorities moving paedophile priests away from one post to another, where they repeated their crimes with fresh victims. Benedict's initial response to the scandals was depicted by many as being defensive. The former pope also personally came under fire for allegedly failing to respond properly to several abuse cases when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church's doctrinal watchdog. But he became increasingly open about sex abuse, apologised for it and in 2010 he issued new Church instructions on dealing with paedophile priests, making it mandatory for cases to be reported to the police. Benedict also prayed with abuse victims on many of his trips overseas, including to Malta and Britain. But the German theologian's pastoral skills have so far been eclipsed by the warmth of Latin America's first pope, who is proving to be something of a draw to the pews. According to the poll Friday, 13% of Catholics in Italy said they were attending mass more often because of his appeal. All of this despite virtually no doctrinal differences between him and the pope emeritus.

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