LA Times’ Helfand Cherrypicks Pew Study To Overstate Effect of Abuse Scandal On Ex-Catholics

On September 6, 2009, the Los Angeles Times published an article by Duke Helfand about efforts by Catholic dioceses to draw ex-Catholics back to the Church. Helfand penned the following passage (bold mine):

Most people raised Catholic remain so in adulthood, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which released a study on religious affiliation in April.

Pew researchers found that those who leave typically join Protestant churches or abandon religion altogether, with most saying they simply drifted away from their faith or stopped believing in its teachings.

Many who have given up their religion also said they felt unhappy with Catholicism's firm positions on abortion, birth control and homosexuality. About one in four former Catholics cited the church's priest-abuse scandal as a factor.

I found Helfand's stat about the effect of the scandal curious, because I recalled when the study came out. I remembered something entirely different. In fact, in a Q&A between reporters and Pew researchers about the study, Helfand had an exchange with a fellow from the Pew forum:

HELFAND: [M]y follow-up question was the point in your report where it talks about the sexual abuse crisis seems to not be a significant reason for people leaving the Catholic Church. Were you surprised by that, and what does that say about Catholic response to the crisis? Because every time I write a story about that, I get e-mails from people saying, this is why I left the Catholic Church.

[PEW FELLOW] GREG SMITH: I would just point to the two different kinds of questions we ask. First of all, we didn’t want to put unnecessary or undo restrictions on what people could tell us about why they changed faiths. So before we asked them a whole bunch of possibilities that came to our mind as we were formulating the questionnaire, we started this survey off by asking people an open-ended question.

We just said, hey, in your own words can you please tell us what’s the main reason you left your childhood religion? So in the case of people who were raised Catholic, we said, what’s the main reason you left the Catholic Church? Very few people mentioned the sex abuse crisis in response to that question. Only 2 or 3 percent of former Catholics said, you know, the main reason I’m no longer Catholic is the sex abuse scandal.

Wait a second. "Only 2 or 3 percent" of former Catholics said the main reason for leaving the Church was the sex abuse scandal. Then how did Helfand come up with the "about one in four" figure citing the scandal? Smith continued,

However, we then asked a follow-up series of questions, where we just asked people not what in your own words was the main question, but instead we asked whether or not a series of discrete items were factors – whether they were the most important or not in people’s decision to change faiths. And there we see more people saying the sex abuse crisis was a factor. Somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of former Catholics say, you know, that did matter. Maybe it wasn’t the most important reason. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it did play a role in my decision to leave the Catholic Church.

Ohhh … So the scandal was listed among a list of "factors" that Pew formulated. (Look at the chart.) But you can see that the sex abuse scandal is halfway to the bottom of both lists ('Now Protestant' and 'Now Unaffiliated').

Helfand dishonestly did not cite that only 2 or 3 percent independently cited the abuse scandal as the main reason for leaving the Church. Instead, he cited the higher figure that was culled from a list of "factors" gleaned by the authors of the study.

Helfand could have cited both figures, but he didn't. Helfand gave the misleading impression that the scandal has factored more into people leaving the Church than it actually has.

And that is dishonest.