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Pope Francis demotes 2 cardinals named in sexual abuse cases

One cardinal is accused of covering up sexual abuse. The other faces criminal charges in Australia.

Cardinal George Pell walks to a car in Melbourne on December 11, 2018. - Pell is facing prosecution for historical child sexual offences. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
  • The cardinals have been removed from the pope's C-9 cabinet, an informal group designed to help restructure the bureaucracy of the Vatican.
  • The cardinals have not been removed from the church.
  • In February, the Vatican will host a conference to inform church leaders about the impacts of sexual abuse.

Pope Francis has removed two cardinals from his informal cabinet after they were implicated in high-profile sexual abuse scandals, the Vatican said on Wednesday.

In letters written in October, Francis thanked Chilean Cardinal Javier Errazuriz and Australian Cardinal George Pell for their five years of service on the so-called Group of Nine, or C-9, which Francis founded in 2013 to help restructure the bureaucracy of the Vatican.

Errazuriz, 85, retired as Santiago archbishop in 2010 and is currently being sued in Chilean civil court by victims of sexual abuse for his alleged role in helping cover up assaults committed by recently defrocked priest Fernando Karadima. The cardinal voluntarily removed himself from the C-9 group in November.

Pell faces criminal charges in Australia for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred in the 1990s and 1970s. He denies the accusations. The 77-year-old cardinal is technically still the Vatican's economy secretariat, a powerful position, though he's not allowed to leave Australia and has reportedly taken an indefinite leave of absence to handle his legal issues.

The Vatican didn't mention accusations of sexual abuse when it announced the demotions.

A near mass-resignation in Chile

In May, Chile's long-standing sexual abuse scandal prompted all of the country's 34 bishops to offer their resignation to the pope, who's so far accepted seven. It was an unprecedented offering and recognition of wrongdoing by church officials.

However, just months earlier, Francis had angered victims in Chile by dismissing accusations that a high-profile bishop, Juan Barros, had covered up sexual abuse committed by the infamous priest Fernando Karadima.

"The day I see proof against Bishop Barros, then I will talk. There is not a single piece of evidence against him," the pope told a reporter while still in Chile. "It is all slander. Is that clear?"

But Francis later doubled back on his comments after ordering an investigation into the situation, saying he felt "shame" for his "grave errors in judgment." Barros resigned in June. In a leaked Vatican report, Pope Francis criticized the Chilean clergy for failing to protect children or investigate abuse.

A landmark conference in February

In February, the Vatican will host the world's church leaders for a conference to address widespread sexual abuse.

A Vatican spokesperson said: "Pope Francis wants church leaders to have a full understanding of the devastating impact that clerical sexual abuse has on victim."

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

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Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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