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Associated Press

Posted on January 16, 2014 at 6:02 AM

Vatican acknowledges 'no excuse' for child abuse, says open to suggestions for improvement

GENEVA (AP) — The Vatican has acknowledged there can be "no excuse" for child abuse, confronted for the first time at length and in public over the global priest sex abuse scandal.

At a U.N. hearing, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican's representative in Geneva, says "such crimes can never be justified" whether committed at home, school, sports activities or in religious organizations and structures.

Tomasi told a U.N. committee Thursday the Holy See welcomes any suggestions that could help it in promoting and encouraging the respect of the rights of the child.

He spoke at the beginning of a hearing at which the Vatican is being challenged with allegations it enabled the rape of thousands of children by protecting pedophile priests and its own reputation at the expense of victims.

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Senate, a step behind House, ready to send government-wide $1.1T spending bill to Obama

WASHINGTON (AP) — Drained of much of its vitriol over the budget, Congress is poised to adopt a $1.1 trillion package financing federal agencies this year, a bipartisan compromise that all but banishes the specter of an election-year government shutdown.

The Democratic-controlled Senate planned to give final congressional approval to the immense spending measure, possibly as early as Thursday. The Republican-run House passed the package Wednesday in a lopsided 359-67 vote that underscored how both parties could claim wins in the measure — and how both saw deep perils in fighting over it.

"Not everyone will like everything in this bill," said Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., the House Appropriations Committee chairman. Rogers and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., were the chief authors. "That's the nature of compromise."

The legislation is a line-by-line follow-up to the budget compromise the two parties pushed through Congress in December that set overall spending limits for the next two years.

The bill lawmakers were considering this week finances federal agencies through September. With the November congressional elections coming just weeks later, Congress is all but sure to provide more money later to avoid an election-eve budget clash.

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Official: Ballot count so far shows overwhelming majority voted for Egypt's new constitution

CAIRO (AP) — A senior Egyptian election official says the ballot count so far from the country's referendum on a new constitution shows an overwhelming majority has endorsed the draft charter.

The official told The Associated Press on Thursday that unofficial results, after most of ballots have been counted, indicate that more than 90 percent of the voters said "yes" to the constitution.

The official declined to give an estimate on the final turnout. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

The vote held Tuesday and Wednesday is a milestone for Egypt's interim government, installed by the military after the ouster last July of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has boycotted the referendum.

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HHS cybersecurity chief says health care website tests didn't follow security 'best practices'

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top cybersecurity officer for the Health and Human Services Department said he was concerned about potential vulnerabilities ahead of the launch of the Obama administration's health care website.

But Kevin Charest told congressional investigators he was unable to get answers to his questions from others inside the department. He concluded that the testing of the site was substandard.

"I would say that it didn't follow best practices," Charest testified a Jan. 8 deposition. Excerpts of his testimony were provided to The Associated Press by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Charest and Teresa Fryer — another government cybersecurity professional who also had qualms — were to testify before the panel Thursday.

Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., investigating the chaotic rollout of the HealthCare.gov website, contends the administration risked the personal information of millions of Americans in its zeal to meet a self-imposed Oct. 1 deadline. The online federal insurance market is the main portal to coverage under President Barack Obama's signature program.

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Indian police: Suspects in rape of Danish tourist are unemployed youth; attack lasted hours

NEW DELHI (AP) — Two suspects arrested in the gang rape of a 51-year-old Danish tourist in New Delhi are unemployed young men who allegedly attacked the woman for nearly three hours before fleeing with her belongings, police said Thursday.

The two were picked up late Wednesday from a park near the scene of the crime, police spokesman Rajan Bhagat said. Investigators were closing in other suspects after the two provided details during questioning, he said.

Police said the tourist was raped at knifepoint Tuesday near Connaught Place, a popular shopping area in the heart of New Delhi. The woman got lost and approached a group of men for directions back to her hotel. But instead of helping her, the men lured her to a secluded spot and raped her repeatedly, according to police.

One of the suspects was found with the victim's glasses case and 1,000 rupees ($16) in cash, a police statement said. The other suspect had an iPod and a pair of earphones. He also had a mobile phone that police said was purchased with money stolen from the victim.

The problem of sexual violence in India has gained widespread attention since the horrific gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus in December 2012. Public fury over the case has led to more stringent laws that doubled prison terms for rape to 20 years and criminalized voyeurism and stalking.

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Mass. monks brewing 'Spencer Trappist Ale,' beer blessed by their exacting European brothers

SPENCER, Mass. (AP) — For more than a century, Catholic Cistercian monks known as Trappists have been brewing and selling what many beer lovers consider some of the best in the world. Eight monasteries — six in Belgium and one each in Holland and Austria — produce the only beer recognized by the International Trappist Association as authentic Trappist beer.

And starting Thursday, the 63 brothers of St. Joseph's Abbey — about an hour's drive west of Boston — will join them, selling the first Trappist beer brewed outside Europe.

Their ambitious venture was hardly met with enthusiasm by their exacting Trappist brothers in Europe.

After all, for nearly 60 years the monks in Spencer, Mass., had been selling jams and jellies to help support their community. Now they were interested in the real family business: beer.

The journey from jams to beer started almost five years ago when St. Joseph's sent two monks on a fact-finding mission to the Belgian Beer Fest in Boston. Within hours, their European brothers were alarmed to learn of the inquiries.

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34 nuclear missile launch officers taken off duty for alleged cheating on proficiency test

WASHINGTON (AP) — In what may be the biggest such scandal in Air Force history, 34 officers entrusted with land-based nuclear missiles have been pulled off the job for alleged involvement in a cheating ring that officials say was uncovered during a drug probe.

The 34 are suspected of cheating several months ago on a routine proficiency test that includes checking missile launch officers' knowledge of how to handle an "emergency war order," which is the term for the authorization required to launch a nuclear weapon.

The cheating scandal is the latest in a series of Air Force nuclear stumbles documented in recent months by The Associated Press, including deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections, breakdowns in training, and evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout. In October the general who commands the nuclear missile force was fired for engaging in embarrassing behavior, including drunkenness, while leading a U.S. delegation to a nuclear exercise in Russia.

The AP disclosed in May an internal Air Force email in which a missile operations officer complained that his force was infested with "rot" — bad attitudes and disregard for discipline.

A "profoundly disappointed" Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service's top civilian official, told a hurriedly arranged Pentagon news conference Wednesday that the alleged cheating at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., was discovered during a previously announced probe of drug possession by 11 officers at several Air Force bases, including two in the nuclear force who are among the 34 suspected of cheating.

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Catalan lawmakers hold key vote in secession debate, asking Spain's permission for referendum

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — A European season of separatist fervor kicked off Thursday with Catalan lawmakers voting on whether to seek the right to hold a referendum on independence from Spain. The EU will be watching closely as Belgium's Dutch speakers gear up to push for greater autonomy in May elections, and Scotland prepares to hold its own referendum on breaking away from Britain in the fall.

The vote is a milestone in years of mass protests by Catalans, who are fiercely proud of their distinct culture and language, demanding the right to decide whether they want to secede. As lawmakers entered the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on Thursday morning to debate ahead of the vote, dozens of Catalans waved independence flags and a smaller group unfurled Spanish flags, yelling "Catalonia is Spain!"

But the vote is also largely a symbolic one.

Catalonia can ask Spain for permission to hold an independence vote all it wants; Madrid still has the power to say "no" — and it almost certainly will.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly said he will not allow a Catalonia secession referendum because Spain's 1978 constitution doesn't envision anything but a unified Spanish state, and mandates that referendums affecting Spain must be held nationally and not regionally. He has an absolute majority in Parliament that assures he will prevail, and the main opposition Socialist party also opposes a referendum vote.

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'Gravity' may exert force in Oscar nominations on Thursday morning

The force of "Gravity" may be about to exert itself on Hollywood's awards season.

When Academy Award nominations are announced Thursday morning from Beverly Hills, Calif., Alfonso Cuaron's 3-D space adventure will likely rival "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle" in a close contest for most-nominated film. Though much of the season has been a see-saw between Steve McQueen's heavy historical epic and David O. Russell's lighter Abscam melodrama, "Gravity" should emerge Thursday as an equally strong Oscar contender.

All three are locks for a best picture nomination. And while "Gravity," with a cast of just a few, won't reap the acting nods that the acclaimed ensembles of "American Hustle" and "12 Years a Slave" will, it holds an edge in technical categories. Cuaron's box-office hit ($670 million worldwide) has been hailed for its innovative visual effects, which are sure to be honored by the academy.

The Golden Globes are typically a weak forecaster to the Oscars, but last Sunday's ceremony reflected consensus by naming "American Hustle" best comedy and "12 Years a Slave" best drama. Hollywood's guilds, whose members largely make up the academy, have in their awards nominations also voiced strong support for Paul Greengrass' Somali pirate docudrama "Captain Phillips," Martin Scorsese's finance fiasco "The Wolf of Wall Street" and Alexander Payne's black-and-white road trip "Nebraska."

But an added bit of intrigue, as has been the case in recent years, is how many best-picture nominees there will be. It could be anywhere between five and 10. Films somewhere on the bubble are "Dallas Buyers Club," ''Her," ''Saving Mr. Banks," ''Philomena" and "Inside Llewyn Davis."

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W.Va. spill shows vulnerability of water supply; water plants exempt from security regulations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — It's a nightmare scenario that became all too real in West Virginia: a chemical seeped into the water supply and threatened to sicken hundreds of thousands of people.

While no one became seriously ill from last week's chemical spill, some homeland security experts said the emergency was proof the United States has not done nearly enough to protect water systems from accidental spills or deliberate contamination.

Officials found out about the spill when people started calling in complaints about a strong licorice-type smell in the air. West Virginia American Water, which supplies 300,000 people with water in the central part of the state, said it would not have detected the chemical because it's not a substance utilities test for. Before the spill, no standards existed for measuring the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, in water, the utility said.

Congress last addressed water security in a 2002 law that required utilities to assess their vulnerabilities and report them to the Environmental Protection Agency, but there was no mandate to correct the shortcomings. Subsequent efforts to establish security regulations for water systems and treatment plants have gone nowhere, despite support from the Obama and Bush administrations.

A law requiring chemical plants to develop security plans was enacted in 2007, but it specifically exempts wastewater treatment plants even though they use many of the chemicals regulated under the program. Critics said the law did not do much to make chemical plants safer either, because it didn't give the Department of Homeland Security enough enforcement authority.

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