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Pope Admits Online News Can Provide Aid

The letter released Thursday in which Pope Benedict XVI admitted that the Vatican had made “mistakes” in handling the case of a Holocaust-denying bishop was unprecedented in its directness, its humanity and its acknowledgment of papal fallibility.

But it also contained two sentences unique in the annals of church history.

“I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on,” Benedict wrote. “I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.”

In other words: “Note to the Roman Curia: try Google.”

The Vatican, a 2,000-year-old monarchy built on the ruins of the Roman Empire and run by octogenarians, has officially recognized the demands of the 24-hour news cycle.

In his disarmingly human letter, Benedict acknowledged the “avalanche of protests” elicited after he revoked the excommunication of four schismatic bishops in January, including Richard Williamson, who in a television interview broadcast a few days earlier — and widely available online — had denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.

In his letter, the pope also defended his decision to revoke the excommunications of the bishops, who belong to the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, founded in opposition to the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the mid-1960s.

He also said that the group must accept the teachings of Vatican II. “The church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 — this must be quite clear to the Society,” he wrote.

On Thursday, the Society of St. Pius X said it was ready to begin the doctrinal debates necessary for its return to full communion with the church. It conveyed the news in an e-mail message, in Latin, which instructed recipients “Ite ed vide,” or go and look, at its Web site, of course.

Iraqi Shoe Thrower Is Sentenced to 3 Years

An Iraqi journalist who gained acclaim for hurling his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference here in December was sentenced to three years in jail on Thursday as distraught family members and supporters wept outside the courtroom.

Although views differed among Iraqi journalists and observers about whether the sentence was merited, there was the sense that his gesture, which made headlines around the world, would be burned into the Iraqi narrative of the American occupation.

The lawyer who led al-Zaidi’s defense team, Dhiya al-Saadi, said the decision would be appealed to the Court of Cassation, Iraq’s highest court. Some experts said they expected that the government would pardon him after he had served part of his sentence.

Plastic or Paper? Maybe Neither

Environmental officials and the owners of hundreds of supermarkets throughout the state were expected to sign an agreement Thursday to reduce by a third the plastic and paper bags the grocers distribute in Massachusetts.

The pact would mark the first statewide effort to control the billions of bags that end up as litter everywhere from tree branches to beach fronts.

The five-year plan, devised as state lawmakers and municipalities have proposed bans or charges for the disposable bags, aims to cut the number of bags provided at supermarkets and grocery stores from the estimated 1.5 billion a year today to 1 billion a year in 2013. The reductions will come from a combination of incentives for customers to recycle old bags and from closer state scrutiny of bag purchases by supermarkets.

“We think this is the right way to go about reducing the number of bags, because charging for them would be a regressive tax and banning them would create a burden for many of our customers,” said Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents more than 500 supermarkets and independent grocery stores in the state. “We see this as a start.”

But environmental groups and lawmakers who favor more sweeping action argued that the voluntary reduction is not enforceable and leaves a massive number of plastic bags still flowing out of supermarkets.

U.S. Household Wealth Falls by Trillions

In the last few months, most Americans have felt poorer. Now they have the numbers to prove it.

The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that households lost $5.1 trillion, or 9 percent, of their wealth in the last three months of 2008, the most ever lost in a single quarter in the 57-year history of record-keeping by the central bank. For the full year, household wealth dropped $11.1 trillion, or about 18 percent. Though the numbers do not yet reflect it, the decline in the stock market so far this year has probably erased trillions more in the country’s collective net worth.

The next biggest annual decline in wealth came in 2002, when household net worth fell 3 percent after the collapse of the technology bubble. The most recent loss of wealth is staggering and will likely put further pressure on the economy because many people will have to spend less and save more.

Most of the wealth was lost in the holdings of financial assets like stocks, which tumbled at the end of last year. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, for instance, fell 23 percent in the fourth quarter. The value of residential real estate, which is the biggest asset for most families, fell much less by comparison — $870 billion, or about 4 percent.