Yesterday the news was filled with another supposed change "priests can now forgive abortion" is often how it read.
To understand what did and did not happen yesterday, let's start with
Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.
Why a penalty for abortion and not other murders, because others forms of murder are punished through the civil law. A similar penalty exists for a person who violates the seal of confession, which again would not be punished in the civil law.
As for the remission of the penalty, the law reserve it normally to the "ordinary" which contrary to the news media is not just the bishop. In every diocese there is a vicar general, and in most dioceses a variety of Episcopal Vicars who are also ordinaries. More importantly be bishop can grant the ability to remit the penalty in confession, and in many dioceses in the U.S., they have done this already. As a priest of the Diocese of Richmond, I have had it for all 26 years of my priesthood.
I am glad the news media is pointed to the mercy expressed by the Pope. I simply wish it would stop trying to paint the Church as some heartless institution. They never stop and ask what the purpose of the penalty is to begin with.
Unlike the penal systems in most states, the penal system in the Church exists not simply to punish a person, but more important to encourage conversion, reconciliation, and healing.
The penalty of excommunication imposed on the person who procurs an abortion is imposed to encourage the person to go to confession. In the confessional they talk about it. Twenty-six years as a priest has taught me that often there is a great deal of emotional pain experienced by the woman who has the abortion. The confessor has an opportunity to absolve the sin, remit the penalty, and provide pastoral care.
The Pope has made no change in the teaching of the church nor any major change in the pastoral practice. For the Jubilee Year he is in a variety of ways simply attempting to underscore the boundless quality of God's mercy. In his words,
The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.