The "special" concession for a pregnancy-termination act normally deemed a sin punishable by excommunication is a result of an appeal by Madrid Archbishop Antonio Maria Rouco Varela for the Vatican to offer women who had abortions access to "the fruits of divine grace that will open the doors to a new life," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Varela has opposed Spain's removal of many abortion restrictions, including a new law giving women the right to an abortion within 14 weeks of becoming pregnant.
Special powers have been given to all priests in Madrid to absolve women who confess to abortion in the sacrament of penance during Benedict's four-day visit to the church's World Youth Day event, Lombardi said.
"Normally, only certain priests have the power to lift such an excommunication, but the local diocese has decided to give all the priests taking confession at the event this power," Lombardi told Britain's The Guardian.
Women in Spain had more than 112,000 legal abortions in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available.
Madrid's giant Buen Retiro Park has set up 200 white portable confessional booths, where priests and bishops from around the world listen in 30 languages to confessions.
Benedict will sit in one of the booths Saturday morning to hear confessions from three visitors before he celebrates a mass at a military air base for as many as 6,000 seminarians.
Lombardi denied the abortion deal was designed to attract waverers back to the church.
"With so many young people attending, there may be those who have had problems of this kind and it makes sense to reach out to them," he told The Guardian.
Benedict's visit, beginning Thursday and costing an estimated $73 million -- some of it paid for with tax dollars -- has sparked widespread protests from groups, including Catholic groups, that oppose the use of public funds when Spain is in the midst of an austerity drive, the unemployment rate for young people is 40 percent and Catholic parishioners are losing their homes to foreclosure every day.
"It is scandalous, the price," the Rev. Eubilio Rodriguez told The New York Times. "It is shameful. It discredits the church."
Rodriguez, 67, is among 120 clergymen who signed a petition deploring the pope's visit, railing against everything from its cost to what they see as an inappropriate melding of church and state.
Government and church officials insist the taxpayer cost will be minimal and the tourism benefits will far outweigh the costs. Corporate and individual donations and event tickets will cover most expenses, they say.
Others claim substantial public costs are hidden, such as overtime for 10,000 police officers on duty for security, the air base use for the mass and an 80 percent discount for visiting Catholic youth on the city's public transportation system, which some find particularly annoying because subway fares just went up 50 percent.
About 140 organizations -- including the "indignados," or "outraged," youth movement that protested Spain's handling of the economic crisis this spring; dissident priests; political groups; and women's- and gay-rights groups -- are expected to demonstrate in the tens of thousands against the papal visit Wednesday evening.
Police said they arrested a 24-year-old organic-chemistry student Tuesday on suspicion of planning to attack the demonstrators with asphyxiating gases and other chemical substances.
In the World Youth Day's inaugural Mass Tuesday evening, Varela -- aided by about 800 bishops, archbishops and cardinals from around the world and another 8,000 priests -- assailed "rampant moral and spiritual relativism," referring to a concept that points of view have no absolute truth but rather have only relative, subjective value based on perception and consideration.
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