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US Catholics like Pope Benedict but many ready for new direction, married priests

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Pope Benedict XVI gets favorable marks from three-fourths of his U.S. flock, even though many of them want to see the next pope move in new directions.

Roughly one in two American Catholics believes the next pope should take the church in a new direction and supports the idea of married priests, a new survey has found.

But the push toward modernization hasn't made the current, very traditional pontiff unpopular.

Three-fourths of U.S. Catholics have a favorable view of outgoing Pope Benedict XVI in the survey from the Pew Research Center released Thursday.

Still, Pope Benedict, who will resign next week, has seen his favorability ratings dip from a high of 83% in April 2008, just after he visited the United States, and his numbers have always been lower than those of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The sexual-abuse scandal that has roiled the church hasn't helped. The survey found only a third think he has done a good or excellent job of handling the crisis, down from almost half in 2008.

With the College of Cardinals poised to select a new pope, Pew found Americans deeply divided about whether he should hew to the traditional positions (51 percent) or "move in new directions" (46 percent). Those who went to Mass once a week were more likely to skew traditional, while college graduates were more likely to support change.

Married priests, women in the priesthood, and acceptance of contraception and same sex-marriage were named more often as desirable new directions than relaxing church strictures against divorce or abortion.

A majority of Catholics are also ready for a pope from outside of Europe, saying it would be welcome if he hailed from a developing region of the world such as South America, Asia or Africa. 

The results were based on two national surveys conducted between Feb. 13 and Feb. 18 that included a total of 2,507 people.