WASHINGTON — If any year was ripe for a decrease in donations to the Catholic Church, last year was it. All the signs were there: from a public distracted by war and terrorism threats to a sluggish economy and, last but not least, to mistrust by many parishioners as the sexual-abuse scandal unfolded.

But an analysis of financial data revealed that Catholics increased their donations — at least to Sunday collections.

Catholics donated an estimated $5.8 billion to Sunday collection baskets in their local parishes in 2002, an increase of 4.9% from the year before, according to Joseph Claude Harris, an independent researcher of Church finances.

At the same time, however, they decreased their pledges to bishops' annual appeals for diocesan operations by an estimated 2.3%, to $635 million.

Harris analyzed data compiled by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which prepares financial reports released by dioceses.

“It's a reassuring message for the Church, although people are affected by the clergy scandal,” commented Mary Gautier, a senior research associate with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. “Many people are probably angry at the bishops for some of their decisions; nevertheless, they recognize that they are Catholic, and they're glad to be Catholic, and they want to stay Catholic. So they continue to support their parishes, and they feel very strongly about supporting the Church in spite of what they see as some unfortunate actions on the part of leadership.”

Gautier described Harris as an “excellent researcher” but added a caveat about the data. Harris' analysis contains some estimations because the data provided are incomplete in some instances.

For instance, only 63% of the dioceses in the country provided financial information on Sunday collections in 2002. And only 12 of the 176 Latin-rite dioceses in the United States submitted the results of their annual fund-raising appeals.

Harris was spurred to complete the research to see how Catholic giving was affected during such a tumultuous year within the Church.

“I guess I would argue that if Catholics were in revolt, it's not a very militant revolt because they're giving more,” said Harris, who lives in Seattle. He added that if there was a revolt, it occurred in the Boston area, the site where the scandal mushroomed.

He found that pledges to the cardinal's appeal in the Archdiocese of Boston dropped from $16 million in 2001 to $8.8 million in 2002, while donations to the Sunday collection also fell, by 8%.

Two Dioceses

Those decreases did not come as a surprise, according to Carol McKinley, a parishioner at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston.

“People are hurting,” said McKinley, who also leads a pro-Church group called Faithful Voice. “Everyone has begun to undergo a healing process, but they're reluctant to jump back with both feet. They simply are waiting for the actions that verify the directions in terms of whether this archdiocese is going to return to fidelity or is it going to remain centrist.”

In contrast, about 40 miles away from Boston, in the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., where seven priests were removed from ministry in 2002 and another was placed on personal leave after allegations of misconduct surfaced, donations to the bishop's appeal exceeded expectations. The goal was $4 million; the appeal ended up raising $4,016,961 — about $200,000 more than last year, according to diocesan figures.

Eugenia Tsantinis, who attends Mass at St. Paul's Cathedral in Worcester, gave to the appeal because “it is to the advantage of the enemies of the Church if Catholic schools and hospitals cease to exist,” she said. “And they will disappear without money.”

According to Harris, here's how several archdioceses around the country fared:

— In Los Angeles, the Sunday collection increased from $127 million in 2001 to $133 million in 2002; the cardinal's appeal rose from $15.6 million in 2001 to $16.2 million in 2002.

— In Chicago, the Sunday collection rose from $221 million to $227 million; the cardinal's appeal decreased from $7.1 million to $6.5 million.

— The Archdiocese of New York didn't report its Sunday collection figures; the cardinal's appeal was consistent: $13.4 million in 2001 and in 2002.

The Harris report stands in contrast to the Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual survey, released in late October. Americans did not donate as much to the country's 400 largest charities in 2002, it found. Donations fell 1.2%, from $47.5 billion in 2001 to $46.9 billion. It was the first time in 12 years that contributions decreased, the publication said.

Francis Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, said because of the sexual abuse scandal, more Catholics are becoming educated about how the Church is run.

“They're becoming more aware of what happens to their donations or what could happen to their donations,” he said. “They're getting a little more serious about those questions as far as stewardship goes.”

During the past two years, Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities sponsored a survey among parishioners who attend Mass frequently. In the surveys, which were conducted by the Gallup Organization, the parishioners were asked about their views on the financial accountability of the bishops. In 2002, 45% found the bishops to be above average in their financial accountability. In 2003, the figure dropped to 38%, according to the organization.

The parishioners also thought the bishops had improved in dealing with the sexual-abuse problem: 35% said bishops were doing a good job in 2002, while in 2003, that figured rose to 49%, according to Foundations and Donors.

Charles Zech, a Villanova University economics professor who developed the survey questionnaire along with Butler, said 656 people participated in the survey last year. This year, only 309 parishioners of the group from last year participated, he said.

He said what Harris' analysis and the Foundations and Donors results showed were that people don't blame their pastors for the scandal — and that their faith in the Church was strong.

“The Church has been around for 2,000 years,” Zech said, “and the Holy Spirit is there. And, ultimately, people's faith is going to carry us through this. Their faith will be reflected in the deployment of bishops who will deal with the scandal better in the future.”

Carlos Briceno writes from Seminole, Florida.