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Yuletide Gift for Pope Francis: Vast Popularity Among Catholics

Franco Origlia/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- American Catholics may be celebrating Advent with extra gusto this month, welcoming the Christmas holiday under the leadership of an almost unanimously popular new pope -- marking the church’s continued recovery from the depths of its pedophile scandals a decade ago.

Nine months after his elevation to the papacy, a remarkable 92 percent of Catholics in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll express a favorable opinion of Pope Francis, 16 percentage points more than said so about Pope Benedict XVI early this year.

See a PDF with full results, tables and charts here.

Indeed among all Americans, including the nearly eight in 10 who aren’t Catholics, 69 percent see Francis favorably, 15 points more than said the same about Benedict at the end of his papacy.  Still, there’s room for Francis to advance further: Pope John Paul II was seen favorably by more Americans overall, 86 percent, in a Gallup poll in December 1998.

Beyond Francis’ personal popularity, a new question in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that 85 percent of Catholics approve of the direction in which he’s leading the church.  Even ratings of the church overall have improved among Catholics, from 86 percent favorable in February 2013 to 95 percent now.  Among all Americans, 62 percent view the church favorably, the same as last February.

These results extend improvements for the church since its credibility was badly damaged by its child sex abuse scandals.  Sixty-eight percent of Americans rated the church favorably in a 1999 poll; that plummeted as low as 40 percent in late 2002, with the scandals front and center. 

Among Catholics themselves, favorable ratings of the church fell as low as 69 percent in 2002, 26 points lower than their level today. (John Paul, for his part, fell from an 86 percent favorable rating among all adults in 1998 to 65 percent in 2003, again as scandal gripped the church.)

The Vatican last week announced that Francis was appointing a commission to consider how the church can better protect children from sexual abuse by priests.  Some victims’ groups were critical, calling the effort insufficient and ill-defined.

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