Struggling with the trust factor

  • September 14, 2007
{mosimage}It may well be a greater compliment to be trusted than to be loved. If so, is it a greater heartbreak to watch trust evaporate?

For an answer, one might ask a parish priest. Canadian trust in clergy has been slipping at an alarming pace over the past five years.

The 2007 Leger Marketing “Profession Barometre” finds that 61 per cent of Canadians say they trust church representatives — not even close to the 97 per cent who trust firefighters or 94 per cent who trust nurses, Canada’s most trusted professions.

However, Canadians still rank clergy more trustworthy than pollsters at 59 per cent, journalists at 48 per cent or politicians, who garner the trust of just 15 per cent of Canadians.

The trouble for clergy is that they appear to have lost the trust of 12 per cent of Canadians since 2002. While trust levels for journalists, bankers and teachers have remained steady over the past five years, Canadians’ trust in church representatives has fallen from almost three-quarters at 73 per cent to less than two-thirds at 61 per cent.

“We should not just look at these things and say, ‛Oh well, it’s just another survey.’ It’s what the people are talking about, what they’re saying,” said St. Clare of Assisi pastor Fr. John Borean from Woodbridge, Ont.

Trust is the essential ingredient in a pastoral relationship, Borean said.

“People come to you with their personal needs. They need healing. They need someone who will not put a Band-aid over them but give them hope of true healing,” he said. “If there’s no trust there, how can that ever happen?”

“Trust is an important ingredient,” said St. Anselm pastor Fr. Brian Clough. “We have to do our best to ensure we deserve the trust that people give us.”

It’s probably not much consolation for today’s clergy to consider that a crisis in trust has historical precedents.

“It isn’t all that new,” said Phillis Airhart, a professor of the history of Christianity at Emmanuel College in Toronto. “There’s a long history of anticlericalism. It’s gone up and down over time.”

If polls could have been taken during the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, or during the 18th century in Western Europe, the clergy might have ranked lower on the trust scale than they do now, said Airhart.

{sidebar id=1}The professor has a couple of theories about what could have caused a decline in trust since 2002. One possibility is that in 2002, just after the initial impact of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, public perception of the churches as an essential service for traumatized people may have boosted clergy trust numbers above their historical norm. Most of the drop in the trust rating for church representatives comes as an eight-per-cent fall between 2002 and 2003.

There is also the question of how many people know a pastor well enough to trust one.

“In a period when church attendance is down, you may not have experienced church leadership yourself and had that positive experience of a caring minister to counter-balance what you read in the media,” Airhart said.

The May 8 to 13 Leger survey of 1,500 Canadians in both French and English only asks whether people trust church representatives. It does not explore why people place their trust or distrust in any of the professions named in the survey.

The national results are considered statistically accurate within a margin of plus or minus 2.6 per cent 19 times out of 20.

Clough also puts his finger on the church attendance factor.

“Who you don’t know you don’t trust,” said Clough.

Clerical sex abuse, which dominated church news headlines since the early years of the decade, has also taken its toll on the public reputation of clergy, according to Clough.

American polls have documented the loss of respect Catholic clergy have suffered because of sex abuse scandals since the fall of 2001. Polling company Zogby International and Le Moyne College in Syracuse have been measuring Catholic perceptions on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops twice a year.

In the LeMoyne-Zogby poll, Catholic support for U.S. bishops dropped from 83 per cent in the fall of 2001 to 58 per cent in the spring of 2004. Since then the level of support has gradually recovered to 70 per cent in the spring of 2007.

The annual Harris Poll in the United States asks about prestige rather than trust. Just as in Leger Marketing’s “Profession Barometre,” firefighters come out on top in this poll, clergy in the top half, and journalists and lawyers in the bottom half.

Over 20 years, the poll shows American respect for clergy holding steady between 40 and 45 per cent, except in the three years following revelations of sexual abuse in Boston, when clergy was considered a “very prestigious” profession by just 32 per cent of Americans in 2004. By 2007, the Harris poll puts the clergy back at historical levels, with 40 per cent of Americans rating clergy a “very prestigious” profession.

For pastors who work in parishes full of people whose trust in the church is demonstrated by their attendance Sunday morning, the drop in support for clergy may not be so apparent, said Borean.

“Sitting in my parish and doing my work here, I don’t feel that,” he said.

It’s the people who aren’t in church Sunday morning who might feel they can’t reach out to a priest that worries Borean.

“If I were bishop I would say, ‛Gentlemen, you know we have something in front of us. We have to preach the Gospel truly. When we do that there’s no hidden interests, there’s no personal agendas,’ ” Borean said.

“Hypocrisy does not engender trust,” said Clough.

The example priests set with their lives counts, added the veteran canon lawyer and seminary professor.

“If we live by what we are preaching, and if we keep our minds focussed on trying to do that — namely the spread of the Gospel and the celebration of the sacraments — then I think it automatically instils trust and receptivity among people.”

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