Sex scandals rocked the U.S. Catholic Church in the early 2000s, as revelations of past abuses led to thousands of adherents to leave the church and the hierarchy to ultimately pay out $3.3 billion in damages to victims. They also may have boosted the Democratic Party’s fortunes, according to a new study.
In a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research Monday, economists Angela Dills and Rey Hernandez-Julian of Providence College and the Metropolitan State University of Denver, respectively, examined regions hit particularly hard by the scandals and found an uptick in votes for Democratic candidates and an increase in welfare spending. Their findings suggest that the government stepped in to make up the difference after churches cut back their provision of social services when the pews and church coffers emptied out following the crisis.
Word of the abuse hit the mainstream in 2002, when details of priests’ abuse of minors and subsequent cover-ups in the Archdiocese of Boston led Cardinal Bernard Law to resign. Boston would be the first of several U.S. cities to experience a major crisis. In all, according to a 2004 inquiry performed by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice commissioned by the U.S. hierarchy, 4,392 priests (about 4 percent of U.S. priests) were involved in abuse of minors between 1950 and 2002, with the majority of cases taking place in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. According to the Economist, the U.S. Catholic Church had paid out $3.3 billion in settlements to abuse victims as of 2012.
Did the scandals cause people to turn from the church to the state? Previous studies have found that private charity declines as government welfare services increase. In particular, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber (one of the key architects of President Obama’s 2010 health care law) and Notre Dame’s Daniel Hungerman reported in a 2007 paper that the increase in government spending under the New Deal reduced church spending on social services by 30 percent. In other words, government welfare spending can “crowd out” private religious provisions of services.
Dills and Hernandez-Julian examined the reverse of that phenomenon: whether a decrease in religious activity leads to an expansion of government welfare spending. They used the Catholic Church’s scandal, which led to a marked decrease in churchgoing and other measures of religiosity among Catholics, as a natural experiment. They reasoned that the decline in church attendance and intensity of church participation following the scandals would be unrelated to other factors in people’s attitudes toward religious and government welfare spending, allowing them to answer whether the question of whether church and state provision of social services are substitutes.
The results the authors obtained were mixed. People living in areas with prevalent reports of abuse were not likely to state a preference for greater government spending in polls. They did, however, end up voting more for Democratic candidates for office, a result that makes sense if it is assumed that a vote for the Democratic Party is a vote for greater government spending on social insurance. Furthermore, Dills and Hernandez-Julian found that actual welfare spending increased in regions more affected by scandals, mostly in the form of higher Medicaid spending.
Although government welfare spending rose following the scandal, it did not increase enough to offset the drop in the church’s charitable giving. “[I]ncreased religiosity and adherence provide more charitable contributions than would exist otherwise,” Dills and Hernandez concluded. In other words, if churches’ support for the needy decreases, the government does not make up the difference, even though the welfare state grows as a result.
Catholics are often thought of as a key voting demographic in the U.S., as they do not vote consistently for one party and are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. The political views of self-professed Catholics often mirror those of the country as a whole. The winner of the Catholic vote has won the popular vote in the past six presidential elections, although Al Gore lost the electoral vote in 2000 while winning the popular vote. In a review of the Catholic vote earlier this year, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote that the “2012 election marked the “third straight election where the Catholic vote has been a near-carbon copy of the overall vote.”
According to Pew Research, Catholics accounted for a quarter of the electorate in 2012 and voted 50 percent for Barack Obama and 48 percent for Mitt Romney. Catholics are split on the role of government, according to Pew, with 48 percent favoring smaller government with fewer services, and 42 percent favoring bigger government with more services. White Catholics, however, prefer smaller government 64-28.