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Pope's popularity is plummeting in the U.S. after sexual abuse scandals

Pope Francis, speaks during the welcoming ceremony at The National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Susana Gonzalez

Pope Francis's once-overwhelming popularity in the U.S. has taken a major hit since a new report on sexual abuse was released in August, according to two new polls.

A Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 53 percent of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of the pontiff, down from 66 percent in August, when respondents were questioned just before the release of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand jury report listing hundreds of Catholic clergy accused of sexual abuse and misconduct over 70 years in the state. Francis's popularity has fallen 23 points from a 2014 high of 76 percent in Gallup polls.

A separate CNN/SSRS poll released last week found 48 percent with a favorable view of the pope, down from 66 percent in January 2017 and a high of 72 percent in December 2013.

Francis continues to be far more liked than disliked, with roughly one-quarter of the public saying they have an unfavorable impression of him, and a sizable share holding no opinion. But the drop-off is notable from earlier in his papacy, when his messages about acceptance toward gay people and other groups received widespread positive media attention, fueling his popularity.

Since August, the church has been rocked by the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the investigations that followed - attorneys general are now conducting inquiries on abuse in the church in states including Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. And Francis's own culpability has been impugned in a shocking letter by the former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who claims Francis knew that former cardinal Theodore McCarrick had sexually harassed young men but chose to let secret sanctions on McCarrick slide anyway. Francis has declined to respond directly to Vigano's allegations.

The Gallup and CNN polls differ on whether Francis's popularity has decreased among Catholics. Gallup finds the fall in favorable ratings concentrated among non-Catholics, while the CNN survey suggests a significant drop among both Catholics and the broader public.

In the Gallup poll, opinions of Francis among U.S. Catholics changed little: 78 percent rated him favorably in August while 79 percent did so this month. That's still down from a high of 89 percent in March 2014. Among non-Catholic Americans, favorable ratings of the pope dropped sharply from 63 percent in August to 45 percent in the new survey.

By contrast, the CNN poll found a 20 percentage-point drop in favorability for the pontiff among U.S. Catholics in comparison to 2017, from 83 percent to 63 percent in the latest survey. Part of the difference between survey findings may be a result of different timing of historical comparison surveys for Gallup and CNN.

The CNN survey found a larger decrease in favorability among younger Americans. Among those 45 and older, Francis's favorable rating dropped from 68 percent to 44 percent since early 2017, a 24-point drop. Among people ages 18 to 44, Francis's ratings fell by a smaller 10 points, from 63 to 53 percent.

There were significant drops in favorability among both Democrats (down from 79 percent to 57 percent) and Republicans (down from an already lower 54 percent to 36 percent).

The CNN poll found a slightly larger share of women had favorable opinions of Francis (51 percent) than men (45 percent), both of whom saw decreases in favorability toward the pope by double digits since 2017, down 20 points among women and 15 points among men.

The Gallup poll of 1,035 U.S. adults was in the field Sept. 4 to 12 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points. The CNN poll conducted by SSRS of 1,003 U.S. adults and 199 Catholics was in the field Sept. 6 to 9 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3.8 points overall and 8.7 points among the subgroup of Catholics.

This article was written by Emily Guskin, a reporter for The Washington Post. Scott Clement and Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.