Megan McCabe was born into a Catholic family, attended Catholic high school and college, and now teaches at a Catholic university. But the 32-year-old did not spend more than a month at the fair after a report was released in August by the Grand Jury in Pennsylvania, which had documented more than 1,000 cases of sexual abuse by clergy in the state.

"I had a moment when I felt there was no goodness in this facility," Ms. McCabe said, choking as she spoke.

The sexual abuse scandals that shook the church this year have challenged some of the country's most devoted Catholics to reconcile their long-standing faith with the realities of the institution they depend on to channel them. For them, once decisions were made – such as whether to go to Mass, send their children to the Catholic school, or even have their children baptized – they suddenly became agonizing.

There were 74.3 million Catholics in the United States from 2017, down from 81.6 million just two years earlier, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a non-profit organization at Georgetown University. A Pew Research Center poll released this week revealed that 72% of them agree with Pope Francis' work, the lowest on his pontificate and 12 points since the beginning of the year. More than 60% of American Catholics think that they are doing fair or poor work in dealing with the problem of sexual abuse.

"Our people still believe in God," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami last month to his priests. "But they do not believe in us."

Ms. McCabe was in high school near Boston in 2002 when it first reported the extent of sexual abuse in the church. Although surveys show that church attendance is in sharp decline following the scandal, Ms. McCabe does not remember talking about it much at school or at home. "I did not understand how bad it was," she said.

Now, as a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, she confronts the Church's history of abuse as an adult.

"It hit me – the level of coverup," she said of her reaction to the Pennsylvania report. "That felt worse for me."

She is not the only religious person in her family who has struggled.

Her mother-in-law, Marybeth Brown, has been attending Catholic Mass since she was a child, though she's having a hard time explaining why she has moved on in recent scandals. "It's the only thing I know in my entire life," she said.

The 63-year-old remembers what she should do when the pastor in her parish of Orange County, California, where she had baptized all four of her children, was removed in 2001 for alleged affair with adult women and mistreatment of teenage girls.

It was "a huge kick in the gut," she said, but she stayed with the church.

Ms. Brown believed that after the 2002 crisis, church officials had raised the issue. Recently, however, reports have surfaced that clergymen who in the past had helped to cover up sexual abuse by priests – or who themselves had been accused – remained in positions of power.

"I'm really disgusted," said Ms. Brown. "That should not always happen."

She has tried to separate her belief in God from her disappointment with the Church's leadership.

"As far as my involvement and the feeling I got earlier?" She said. "No, it's more my victim now."

Her priest, Father Brendan Mason, was a seminarian in Boston when the scandal broke out in 2002 and now leads the community of St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point, California. He said this year, "is different."

"Some people just want to keep going – as always," he said. "That's not my purpose for our parishioners, they want to give an account."

Not all Catholics have faith crises.

"Mediocre Catholics are the ones who shy away from the church," said Grace Ruiz, 46, after a recent church service in Artesia, California, where a bishop addressed the scandal from the altar. "All these things are not just going to happen to Catholics, they're just raising the Catholics."

But many of the strongest responses in churches come from followers who are outraged by what they have learned about sexual abuse or how their leaders responded.

On the first Sunday after the release of the Pennsylvania Report, Mary Bradford, another lifelong Catholic whose husband converted to Catholicism before her marriage, left her church in Annapolis, Maryland, angry at the priest asking the parishioners for the church to pray the victims of sexual abuse.

The family continued to participate, but Ms. Bradford, 38, recently suggested to her husband that they look at other denominations.

"The message I receive still seems to be, 'How do we make sure everyone stays in the church?'" She said. "Part of me is like, gosh, maybe the church needs to start over."

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