Catholic sex-abuse crisis boon for Baptists, new research shows

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Dan Hungerman

Did the Catholic sex-abuse scandal benefit other faiths? New research by economist Dan Hungerman shows it did.

The study by Hungerman, Stepan Family Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame, shows a 2 million member drop in the Catholic population following the sex-abuse scandal and more than $3 billion in donations to non-Catholic faiths, with Baptist churches showing the most significant gains.

“Substitution and Stigma: Evidence on Religious Competition from the Catholic Sex-Abuse Scandal” will appear next week on the National Bureau of Economic Research website and later in print.

Using data from 1990 to 2007, Hungerman examined the impact of the sex-abuse scandal on religious participation, particularly non-Catholic religious participation. The results indicate that a crisis or shock in one religious group has significant spillover effects on other religious groups. In the case of Catholics and the abuse shock, Baptist churches benefitted most both financially and in membership growth.

“Over time, the scandal led to a rise in both religious non-affiliation and participation in non-Catholic traditions,” says Hungerman.

“Those leaving the Catholic Church substitute into a wide variety of alternatives. The Catholic tradition is closer to certain traditions – Anglican or Episcopalian – than others, and one might expect the scandal to lead to gains for these churches. But the evidence suggests the opposite.”

Results of Hungerman’s study indicate that Baptist churches experienced the largest gains from the scandal, yet Baptists are a Protestant group considered most distant from Catholics in a number of areas.
“One might wonder if such radical re-affiliation is driven by the scandal itself: Catholics incensed by the scandal choose a very-not-Catholic alternative to ‘punish’ their church…but the findings here suggest that radical substitution may be common even when substitution is driven by mundane events,” according to Hungerman.

Contact: Hungerman can be reached at 574-631-4495 or