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.

  • 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."

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.