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Pope Francis has announced all priests will have the discretion during the forthcoming Jubilee year to forgive women who have had an abortion.

Pope Francis arrives at Rome's San Gregorio church

“I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness,” he said.

In a message outlining special measures for the Jubilee year, which is traditionally associated with forgiveness and starts in December, Pope Francis said he knew that while “abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness”, many others “believe that they have no other option”.

He said he had met many women seeking forgiveness who bore “the scar of this agonising and painful decision”.

Pope Francis, who has repeatedly urged the Church to show greater compassion, said priests should use “words of genuine welcome”, as well as making sure those involved were aware of “the gravity of the sin committed”.

Catholics for Choice, a US-based pro-choice organisation, said this was another positive example of Francis trying to bridge the gulf “between what the hierarchy says and what ordinary Catholics really do”.

“However, despite what Pope Francis has said, I do not believe that Catholic women will be queuing up to ask for forgiveness,” the organisation’s president Jon O’Brien said in a statement.

And limiting the period of forgiveness to one year “suggests that he still has a blind spot when it comes to women and what they want”.

Abortion is considered a particularly serious sin that is punishable under Canon law by excommunication, by which those guilty are expelled from the Church and considered to be condemned to hell in the afterlife.

In 2009 the Vatican drew heavy criticism after it supported a bishop who had excommunicated the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old girl who was given an abortion after her stepfather raped her.

Bishops are already able to authorise priests in their dioceses to forgive those who undergo or carry out abortions.