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Pope: Priests In Holy Year Can Absolve 'Sin Of Abortion'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Pope Francis declared on Tuesday he is allowing all priests in the church's upcoming Year of Mercy to absolve women of the "sin of abortion'' if they repent with a "contrite heart,'' saying he is acutely aware some feel they have no choice but to abort.

Reflecting his papacy's central theme of mercy, Francis said in letter published by the Vatican that God's forgiveness cannot be denied to those who repent, and therefore he is giving all priests the power to absolve the sin in the Holy Year of Mercy, which runs Dec. 8, 2015 until Nov. 20, 2016.

"I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented," Pope Francis said. "May priests fulfill this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed."

The church views abortion as such a grave sin that, until now, a Catholic woman who wanted to repent for an abortion could not simply go to her local parish priest. Instead, her diocese's bishop needed to delegate a priest expert at dealing with such confessions, to hear the woman's confession, or reserved for himself the decision on whether to absolve such women. It is typically a lengthy and difficult process for those seeking forgiveness.

Essentially Francis is making it possible for women to bypass this formalized process in the approaching special Year of Mercy.

"He's sending a very strong message, but not simply to women; he's speaking about all of us in need of forgiveness," said Msgr. Kieran Harrington with the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Harrington believes the pope's decision won't have a great effect on local parishes, saying almost every diocese across the United States already makes this a common practice, and his is no exception.

"Here in the United States it's a very common practice that the priest would have the right to absolve the sin and lift the ban of excommunication," Harrington said.

In his letter, Francis made clear he isn't downplaying the gravity of abortion for the church, which essentially views abortion as equivalent to murder. Instead, he applied his vision of mercy to what is an intensely personal, often anguished choice for women.

"The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails,'' Francis wrote in a letter to a Vatican official promoting the church's evangelization efforts. "Many others on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option.''

In a statement following the pope's letter, the Vatican made clear that "forgiveness of the sin of abortion does not condone abortion nor minimize its grave effects. The newness is clearly Pope Francis' pastoral approach.''

Vatican officials said it's possible the pope will allow this policy to continue after the deadline.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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