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Priests feel poorly equipped to function as confessors and lay Catholics have a diminished appreciation for the value of confession, according to a new study by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The study, one of the most thorough examinations of the Sacrament of Penance among U.S. Catholics, comes in the wake of a sharp decline in the frequency of confession and penance among the laity in the past 25 years. It was based on questionnaires sent to all bishops, a random sample of 2,500 priests and a sample of the laity in three dioceses."The study presents us with a snapshot of the reception of the sacrament of Penance as it is in the United States today," said the Rev. Michael Walsh, executive director of the bishops' Secretariat for Pastoral Research and Practices.

"What we are hoping is that people will take a look at the study and reflect on the place of the sacrament in their own lives."

Currently, there are three different rites for the celebration of the sacrament in use in the United States.

The first rite - the traditional form - involves individual confession and absolution, generally in a one-on-one encounter between a person and a priest.

A second rite also involves individual confession and absolution but is combined with a communal penance service.

The third rite is general absolution that is used in situations where large numbers of penitents make the hearing of individual confessions nearly impossible. While this rite has found much favor among the laity and priests, bishops generally frown on its use except in extraordinary circumstances and do not favor its expanded use.

Cultural changes may have had the most important impact on the declining frequency of Catholics going to confession.

All three surveys - of bishops, priests and laity - point to a changed understanding of sin as a primary factor affecting the practice of confession.