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Poll: U.S. Catholics likely to follow 'conscience'

Pope Benedict XVI waves to the crowd at the Vatican after his election Tuesday.
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The new pope faces challenges in the U.S. Catholic Church.
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ATLANTA (CNN) -- Nearly three-quarters of American Catholics say they are more likely to follow their own conscience on "difficult moral questions," rather than the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, according to a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll.

At the same time, most of those polled said they did not know enough about the new pope to form an opinion about him.

The poll was conducted with 616 U.S. Catholics, hours after Pope Benedict XVI was named the successor to Pope John Paul II. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Seventy-four percent of the respondents said they were more likely to follow their own conscience on tough moral questions, while 20 percent said they were more likely to "follow the teachings" of the new pope.

About two-thirds of those polled, 65 percent, expressed confidence in Pope Benedict XVI's potential ability to handle sexual abuse scandals, although 26 percent said they didn't have much confidence in him on that issue.

In addition, more than half of those polled, 56 percent, said they were bothered by the pope's opposition to birth control. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters, 72 percent, said the age of the 78-year-old pope didn't bother them.

Asked their opinion about the new pope, 60 percent said they did not know enough about him, while 31 percent said they had a "favorable" opinion and 9 percent said they had an "unfavorable" opinion.

Nearly half of those polled, 48 percent, said they were unsure what direction he would lead the Church. Thirty-nine percent said they felt he would move the Church in the right direction, compared to 13 percent who said he would take it in the wrong direction.

Sixty-one percent said they felt he would "unite the Church," while 19 percent said they felt he would "divide the Church."

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