Battle Over Franco’s Remains Plays into Spain’s Constitutional Crisis

Spain’s long-running controversy over the legacy of its 20th century leader, the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco, is entering a new phase as the government presses ahead with plans to move his remains from a mausoleum in the hills outside Madrid.

The issue has long been the cause of anguish and shame for those who see Franco as a murderous dictator whose crimes have never truly been acknowledged. The mausoleum is located in Spain’s vast Valley of the Fallen, which Franco commissioned in 1940, purportedly as a monument to reconciliation after the Spanish civil war which his Nationalist forces won at a cost of half a million lives.

The exhumation effort comes as Spain faces a constitutional crisis sparked by the Catalonia region’s efforts to break away from Spain. During the civil war in the 1930s, the area was a key stronghold for Republicans who fought against Franco until his Nationalists eventually beat them. Franco became Spain’s leader until his death in 1975. Calls to break away have been fueled by historical resentment over rule from Madrid.

Ministers have given Franco’s family until the end of the month to decide where to move the remains. 

Those who see Franco as a Spanish hero — among them retired General Juan Chicharro Ortega, president of the Francisco Franco Foundation — oppose any such relocation.

“Here in Spain there are millions of Spaniards who still admire Franco and remember what he did for Spain, especially because he won [against] Communism. Many people are very grateful to him. We don’t see any other possibility [than] that his remains remain where he is now,” Ortega told VOA.

Supporters of the exhumation argue that the dictator’s remains have no place in the Valley of the Fallen, which is supposed to honor victims on all sides of the Spanish civil war.

Should the exhumation go ahead, Franco’s relatives want his remains interred in the Cathedral of Almudena in central Madrid, where other family members are buried. The government has ruled out that location, fearing it would become a place of pilgrimage for Franco admirers in the heart of the capital. Gonzalo Berger, a historian at the Open University of Catalonia, says such a move would only exacerbate divisions.

“It would be easy to visit those remains and the worship of him would be passed to the center of Madrid, with absolutely undesirable consequences. The absolute opposite of what is intended — it would be an absolute disaster,” Berger said. He also said it will take more than exhumation for Spaniards to have closure over the past.

“At the same time, you have to deploy policies to society as a whole. It is necessary somehow to solve the problem of the disappeared, the people who are in the mass graves, the recognition of the anti-fascist combatants or those who defended the republic.”

For decades, Spain tried to forget the Franco dictatorship. Now the battle over his legacy could play into the country’s profound political crisis.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Turkish Rights Crackdown, Global Outcry Both Intensify

Turkish authorities have issued hundreds of arrest warrants for military personnel accused of involvement in a 2016 failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All are accused of links to the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed for masterminding the botched takeover.

Security forces carried out simultaneous raids on the homes of 295 military personnel early Friday, with senior officers, including colonels, being among those sought by authorities.

The prosecutor’s office said the arrests were the result of a surveillance operation centering on the use of public pay phones, allegedly by members of an underground network affiliated with Gulen.

Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, is accused of using his network of followers within the security forces to try to seize power, a charge he denies.

70,000 jailed

Mass arrests are continuing across Turkish society in connection with the attempted coup, with more than 70,000 people currently jailed. As the crackdown intensifies, however, critics increasingly accuse the government of seeking to stifle dissent rather than protect democracy.

On Tuesday, a Turkish appeals court upheld the convictions of 14 journalists and officials working for Cumhuriyet, the last critical mainstream newspaper. All face jail sentences on terrorism charges, linked to supporting Gulen.

The convictions have provoked widespread criticism and incredulity given the paper has been an outspoken opponent of Gulen for decades, writing exposes on his followers’ alleged infiltration of the Turkish state.

“We only have two days to live. It is not worth it to spend these days kneeling in front of vile people,” said journalist Ahmet Sik in reaction to his conviction and a seven-year jail sentence. Sik is now a member of parliament of the pro-Kurdish HDP.

Four of those convicted face jail, with their appeals process exhausted. The remaining continue to challenge their verdicts. 

Since the failed coup, scores of journalists have been jailed, and international human rights groups and media rights groups regularly cite Turkey as the world’s worst jailer of journalists. Ankara maintains that all those in prison were put there for non-journalist activities.

Turkey vs. PKK

The convictions Thursday of 27 academics by an Istanbul court on terror charges is adding further to criticism of the crackdown. The academics were jailed for two years because they signed a petition calling for an end to a decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels of the PKK. Turkey, the United States and European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

So far, 129 academics have been convicted, with hundreds more still standing trial. Their prosecutions have drawn worldwide condemnation. 

The European Parliament’s patience with Ankara appears to be running out. The parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs called Tuesday for a full vote in March to suspend Turkey’s membership bid, citing the deterioration of human rights and the establishment of a partisan judiciary.

“Human rights violations and arrests of journalists occur on an almost daily basis while democracy and the rule of law in the country are undermined further,” European Parliament member Marietje Schaake said in a statement.

“Baseless allegations [are] a new sign of the European Parliament’s prejudice against our country,” Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hami Aksoy responded.

The European Parliament vote, however, is not binding, with Europe’s leaders having the final say on the fate of Turkey’s membership bid.

With Turkey an important gatekeeper to migrants seeking to enter Europe, analysts suggest European leaders will be reluctant to incur Ankara’s wrath.

On Wednesday, the legal crackdown widened further, with Osman Kavala, a leading philanthropist and millionaire businessman, accused of sedition, a charge that carries punishment of life in prison without parole upon conviction. He has been in jail for more than a year pending charges.

Kavala is one of the main supporters of civil society in Turkey, seeking to build bridges across cultural, religious and ethnic divides.

​Alleged Gezi ties

In a 657-page indictment, Kavala and 15 others are accused of supporting and facilitating the 2013 nationwide anti-government protests known as the Gezi movement.

The Gezi protests were one of the most dangerous challenges to Erdogan, who was then prime minister.

With the Turkish economy facing a deep recession and soaring inflation, the broadening of the legal crackdown to cover the 2013 civic protects is seen by analysts as a warning.

“The government realizes more and more that things are definitely not going the right way,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar. “The government sends the message: Don’t dare to take to the streets and protest against my policies. I will be very harsh in repressing these kinds of protests.”

International outrage over Kavala’s prosecution continues to grow, with condemnation from the Council of Europe and European parliamentarians.

“Shocked, outraged and sad at the same time … accusing him of attempting to destroy the Republic of Turkey is totally crazy,” tweeted Kati Piri, European Parliament deputy and rapporteur on Turkey.

“President Erdogan and his government have concocted an entirely politically motivated case against Osman Kavala and 15 others,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. “Reinventing the Gezi protests as an externally funded coup attempt organized by Kavala is a cynical attempt to rewrite history and justify decimating Turkey’s independent civil society.” 

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Battle Over Franco’s Remains Plays into Spain’s Constitutional Crisis

Spain’s long battle over the legacy of its 20th century leader, the dictator General Francisco Franco, is entering a new chapter as the government presses ahead with plans to move his remains from their current site in the mountains outside Madrid. Ministers have given Franco’s family until the end of the month to decide where the remains should be moved. As Henry Ridgwell reports, the planned exhumation has sparked fierce debate — just as Spain is undergoing an intense constitutional crisis.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Searing Testimony Heard at Vatican Sex Abuse Summit

The day began with an African woman telling an extraordinary gathering of Catholic leaders that her priestly rapist forced her to have three abortions over a dozen years after he started violating her at age 15. It ended with a Colombian cardinal warning them they could all face prison if they let such crimes go unpunished.

In between, Pope Francis began charting a new course for the Catholic Church to confront clergy sexual abuse and cover-up, a scandal that has consumed his papacy and threatens the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy at large.

Opening a first-ever Vatican summit on preventing abuse, Francis warned 190 bishops and religious superiors on Thursday that their flocks were demanding concrete action, not just words, to punish predator priests and keep children safe. He offered them 21 proposals to consider going forward, some of them obvious and easy to adopt, others requiring new laws.

But his main point in summoning the Catholic hierarchy to the Vatican for a four-day tutorial was to impress upon them that clergy sex abuse is not confined to the United States or Ireland, but is a global scourge that requires a concerted, global response.

“Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice,” Francis told the gathering. “The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established.”

More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia, and 20 years after it hit the U.S., bishops and Catholic officials in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny that clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or play down the problem.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, called the summit after he himself botched a well-known sex abuse cover-up case in Chile last year and the scandal reignited in the U.S.

‘Murderers of the soul’

The tone for the high stakes summit was set at the start, with victims from five continents — Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and North America — telling the bishops of the trauma of their abuse and the additional pain the church’s indifference caused them.

“You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed — in some cases — into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith,” Chilean survivor Juan Carlos Cruz told the bishops in his videotaped testimony.

Other survivors were not identified, including the woman from Africa who said she was so young and trusting when her priest started raping her that she didn’t even know she was being abused.

“He gave me everything I wanted when I accepted to have sex; otherwise he would beat me,” she told the bishops. “I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives.”

Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle choked up as he responded to their testimony.

In a moving meditation that followed the video testimony, Tagle told his brother bishops that the wounds they had inflicted on the faithful through their negligence and indifference to the sufferings of their flock recalled the wounds of Christ on the cross.

He demanded bishops and superiors no longer turn a blind eye to the harm caused by clergy who rape and molest the young.

“Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, yes even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution, has injured our people,” Tagle said. The result, he said, had left a “deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve.”

Lesson on investigating abuse

After he offered the bishops a vision of what a bishop should be, the Vatican’s onetime sex crimes prosecutor told them what a bishop should do. Archbishop Charles Scicluna delivered a step-by-step lesson Thursday on how to conduct an abuse investigation under the church’s canon law, repeatedly citing the example of Pope Benedict XVI, who turned the Vatican around on the issue two decades ago.

Calling for a conversion from a culture of silence to a “culture of disclosure,” Scicluna told bishops they should cooperate with civil law enforcement investigations and announce decisions about predators to their communities once cases have been decided.

He said victims had the right to seek damages from the church and that bishops should consider using lay experts to help guide them during abuse investigations.

The people of God “should come to know us as friends of their safety and that of their children and youth,” he said. “We will protect them at all cost. We will lay down our lives for the flocks entrusted to us.”

Finally, Scicluna warned them that it was a “grave sin” to withhold information from the Vatican about candidates for bishops — a reference to the recent scandal of the now-defrocked former American cardinal, Theodore McCarrick. It was apparently an open secret in some church circles that McCarrick slept with young seminarians. He was defrocked last week by Francis after a Vatican trial found credible reports that he abused minors as well as adults.

21 proposals

Francis, for his part, offered a path of reform going forward, handing out the 21 proposals for the church to consider.

He called for specific protocols to handle accusations against bishops, in yet another reference to the McCarrick scandal. He suggested protocols to govern the transfers of seminarians or priests to prevent predators from moving freely to unsuspecting communities.

One idea called for bolstering child protection laws in some countries by raising the minimum age for marriage to 16; another suggested a basic handbook showing bishops how to investigate cases.

In the final speech of the day, Colombian Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez warned his brother bishops that they could face not only canonical sanctions but also imprisonment for a cover-up if they failed to properly deal with allegations.

Abuse and cover-up, he said, “is the distortion of the meaning of ministry, which converts it into a means to impose force, to violate the conscience and the bodies of the weakest.”

Demonstrations

Abuse survivors have turned out in droves in Rome to demand accountability and transparency from church leaders and assert that the time of sex abuse cover-ups is over.

“The question is this: Why should the church be allowed to handle the pedophile question? The question of pedophilia is not a question of religion, it is [a question of] crime,” Francesco Zanardi, head of the main victims advocacy group in Italy Rete L’Abuso, or Abuse Network, told a news conference in the Italian parliament.

Hours before the Vatican summit opened, activists in Poland pulled down a statue of a priest accused of sexually abusing minors. They said the stunt was to protest the failure of the Polish Catholic Church in resolving the problem of clergy sex abuse.

Video showed three men attaching a rope around the statue of the late Monsignor Henryk Jankowski in the northern city of Gdansk and pulling it to the ground in the dark. They then placed children’s underwear in one of the statue’s hands and a white lace church vestment worn by altar boys on the statue’s body. Jankowski is accused of molesting boys.

The private broadcaster TVN24 reported the three men were arrested.

Jankowski, who died in 2010, rose to prominence in the 1980s through his support for the pro-democracy Solidarity movement against Poland’s communist regime. World leaders including President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited his church to recognize his anti-communist activity.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Slovaks Protest Lack of Progress One Year Since Journalist’s Murder

Thousands of Slovaks rallied to mark the first anniversary of the killing of an investigative reporter and his fiancee on Thursday and to protest what they see as a lack of government action against the sleaze he wrote about.

Crowds gathered in the capital and in dozens of towns at rallies organized by “For a Decent Slovakia” — a group of students and NGOs, who said in a statement that they demanded a proper investigation of the murders and a trustworthy government.

“If we want to move forward, we have to know the names of those who ordered this monstrous murder,” organizers said. There were no official turnout estimates but the crowds were smaller than last year’s string of protests that ousted then prime minister Robert Fico after a decade in power and led to a government shakeup.

The changes disappointed many, however, because no snap elections were held and the same three-party coalition has stayed in power. The next vote is due in 2020.

Fico remains chairman of the ruling Smer party and is seen as driving policy behind the scenes, often launching attacks against the media. “You are the biggest criminals, you have caused this country the biggest damage,” Fico told journalists days before the anniversary.

Journalist Jan Kuciak, 27, was shot along with his fiancee in what prosecutors say was a contract killing.

The last article he worked on looked at Italian businessmen in Slovakia with suspected mafia links. He reported that one of the businessman, who has since been extradited to Italy on drug smuggling charges, had business connections with two Slovaks who later worked in Fico’s office.

Fico has denied any wrongdoing and has also blamed the Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist George Soros for his fall.

Police arrested four people in September, including a woman identified only by her initials AZ, who was charged with ordering the murder. Media have identified her as Alena Zsuzsova. She has denied any wrongdoing.

She was never a subject of any of Kuciak’s reporting but Slovak media have reported that she had business ties to the politically connected businessman Marian Kocner, currently held in custody on charges of forgery.

Months before his murder, Kuciak told the police that Kocner had threatened to start collecting information on him and his family. The police did not press any charges.

Kocner has denied any links to the murder.

More than 400 journalists have signed an open letter, pledging to finish Kuciak’s work and demanding government transparency.

“We learnt there are people in the police, prosecutor’s office and government who do not want to protect journalists, instead protecting those who are the subjects of our stories,” it said.

Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini on Thursday urged Slovaks to come together on the anniversary. “Investigation of the murders is one of this government’s priorities. I wish that the murders did not divide our society anymore.”

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Estonians Kick Off Online Voting for March Election

Balloting has started for next month’s general election in Estonia, an online voting pioneer, amid tight protective measures a day after Microsoft warned that hackers linked to Russia had allegedly targeted democratic institutions in Europe.

Kristi Kirsberg, media adviser to Estonia’s electoral committee, said Thursday that the Baltic country — the first in the world to use online balloting for a national election in 2005 — has trained candidates to properly secure their homepages and was closely tracking fake news and disinformation.

Apart from educating candidates on cyberthreats, special attention has been given to protecting political parties’ websites, she said.

Excluding “some minor Facebook postings,” no interference attempts have been reported. Kirsberg said Estonia’s government agencies have set up hotlines to major social media companies like Facebook, who are ready to assist election officials.

“The State Chancellery has helped us to build ties with Facebook, Twitter and Google so that we can quickly inform them in case some kind of disinformation on the election starts to spread,” Kirsberg said. She said that one government official was fully focused on monitoring domestic, Western and Russian news sites as well as social media.

Microsoft said Wednesday that a hacking group identified as Strontium, with alleged links to Russia, had targeted email accounts within think tanks and nonprofit groups in six European countries, not including Estonia, ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in May.

The U.S. tech company urged politicians and authorities to keep in mind that cyberattacks and hacking aren’t limited to election campaigns but have targeted groups dealing with democracy, electoral integrity, and public policy.

Poll leader

Many Estonian experts don’t expect neighboring Russia to meddle with the former Soviet state’s election as Moscow isn’t seen gaining much from such activity.

Estonia’s governing Center Party, which is led by Prime Minister Juri Ratas and caters to the country’s large ethnic-Russian minority, is leading in polls and Ratas is expected to have good chances of forming the new Cabinet.

About a third of Estonia’s eligible 958,600 voters are expected to cast ballots online to renew the 101-seat Parliament in the small country of 1.3 million. The election is March 3.

The online voting system is based on Estonians’ solid trust in their government, which has provided over one million compulsory ID cards, complete with a microchip, enabling secure identification on the internet.

Ballots are cast through a government website. Should a person change their mind, they can go back into the site or vote at a traditional polling station to change their vote during the advance voting period until Feb. 27.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

American’s Detention Potentially Decisive Moment for Russia, Trade Groups Say

Last week’s shocking detention of one of Russia’s most renowned and publicly visible American entrepreneurs not only caught fellow foreign investors off guard, it may have prompted a moment of national reckoning about how Moscow handles investor relations, say both Kremlin-aligned and international trade groups.

Baring Vostok founder Michael Calvey’s arrest Feb. 15 on charges of fraud stemming from a lengthy legal dispute with Russia’s Orient Express Bank sparked widespread speculation about whether the days of unbridled “reiderstvo” — aggressive Kremlin-backed asset raids and corporate takeovers synonymous with Yukos, Russneft, Bashneft, Stolichnaya Vodka and VKontakte — were a thing of the past, or whether, perhaps, Calvey had actually committed a crime.

A recent Moscow court decision to extend Calvey’s detention without trial for a minimum of two months on the grounds that his release poses a flight risk, along with indications that he’s been denied consular access in violation of the 1966 Vienna Convention, doesn’t bode well for professionals such as Aleksander Khurudzhi, who has been tasked by the state with rehabilitating Russia’s image as a secure place to invest.

‘This is a shock’

“From my point of view, what happened is in complete contradiction with statements of a Russian president who, from all rostrums, has expressed the same unchanging viewpoint: that Russia is open for investments and that Russia will do its best to attract and safeguard both Russian and foreign investments,” Khurudzhi, deputy ombudsman for the Kremlin office of business ethics, told VOA.

“This is a shock,” he added. “It undermines all the work being conducted by the Agency for Strategic Initiatives. All the work that has been done for the last seven to eight years aimed at improving the investment climate. It undermines trust in the system as such … (and our entire) team isn’t sleeping at night. Without any exaggeration, the work is being carried out for 24 hours. This is a challenge for all of us, for our whole team.”

Indeed, during his annual State of the Nation address before Russia’s Federal Assembly on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin, who has been faced with record-low approval ratings, even made a fairly explicit reference to Calvey’s detention.

“To achieve … great (economic) objectives, we must get rid of everything that limits the freedom and initiative of enterprise,” Putin said. “Honest businesses should not live in fear of being prosecuted of criminal or even administrative punishment.”

Putin, who met Calvey multiple times since the American arrived in Russia in the mid-1990s, has said he had no foreknowledge of Calvey’s arrest, and that despite his repeated calls to keep commercial disputes and litigation from culminating in spurious charges against foreign investors, he has no direct influence over how Russian courts render their verdicts.

Vocal Kremlin critics, such as Hermitage Capital co-founder Bill Browder, are deeply skeptical of these claims.

“The arrest of Mike Calvey in Moscow should be the final straw that Russia is an entirely corrupt and (uninvestable) country,” Browder said in a tweet Friday. “Of all the people I knew in Moscow, Mike played by their rules, kept his head down and never criticized the government.”

Browder was denied entry into Russia in 2005 after his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, began investigating governmental misconduct and corruption in response to suspicious tax evasion charges brought against Hermitage by Russia’s Interior Ministry.

Magnitsky died under suspicious circumstances in Russian custody in 2009.

Seen as a ploy

For someone like Browder, it would seem Putin’s claim of political impotence in the face of a fully independent judiciary, despite copious historical evidence to the contrary, is nothing more than a cynical public relations ploy meant to portray Russia as a nation of procedural law, while denying justice and consular access to the very foreigners who fastidiously try to abide it.

Even prominent Putin allies, such as Russia’s ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, have sounded the alarm, calling Calvey’s arrest an “economic emergency.”

For U.S. citizen Alexis O. Rodzianko, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia and a longtime Moscow resident, the initial shock of Calvey’s detention might, however ironically, reveal a longer-term opportunity to recalibrate Russia’s ties with foreign investors.

“Sure, at this point it’s damaging. It certainly makes every one of us who were here thinking about, ‘Well, you know, how far is it from me to his prison cell?’” he told VOA. “But I think it could be a defining issue for the business climate here. It could be the beginning of a bad streak, or it could be the signal for Russia to actually take some positive action.”

Rodzianko, who’s convinced the charges against Calvey are without legal merit, said he’s personally convinced the arrest stemmed from “a commercial dispute in the usual sense,” and that “people who set it up were not expecting the resonance that it (has) received.”

Asked if he thought Calvey’s arrest could be in any way politically motivated, he said he was convinced it was not.

“But then I think, in the circumstances, it can’t but be political, just because of the current state of affairs, because of the current state of relations,” Rodzianko said. “It’s just too easy to make that connection, which I don’t think is a proper connection, but I don’t see how it can be avoided.

Two possible outcomes

“I think it’s a symptom of a problem that Russia has, and Russia has to deal with,” he added. “It could (have one of) two outcomes.”

One, he said, is that Calvey’s arrest will come to signify a continuation of a malevolently corrupt practice that Russian and foreign investors have come to “face on an endemic basis.”

Or, “it might actually be a mistake which leads to significant reform, which might improve the situation for both foreigners and Russians investing in Russia,” Rodzianko said.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow district court said that Calvey, who was detained along with other members of the firm on suspicion of stealing $37.5 million (2.5 billion rubles), faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Pete Cobus is VOA’s acting Moscow correspondent.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Pope to Sex Abuse Summit: ‘Transform This Evil,’ Faithful Demand It

Pope Francis warned church leaders summoned Thursday to a landmark sex abuse prevention summit that the Catholic faithful are demanding more than just condemnation of the crimes of priests but concrete action to respond to the scandal.

Francis opened the four-day summit by telling the Catholic hierarchy that their own responsibility to deal effectively with priests who rape and molest children weighed on the proceedings.

“Listen to the cry of the young, who want justice,” and seize the opportunity to “transform this evil into a chance for understanding and purification,” Francis told the 190 leaders of bishops conferences and religious orders.

“The holy people of God are watching and expect not just simple and obvious condemnations, but efficient and concrete measures to be established,” he warned.

​More than 30 years of scandal

More than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the U.S., bishops and Catholic officials in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia still either deny that clergy sex abuse exists in their regions or downplay the problem.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, called the summit after himself botching a well-known sex abuse cover-up case in Chile last year. Realizing he had erred, he has vowed to chart a new course and is bringing the rest of the church leadership along with him.

The summit is meant as a tutorial for church leaders to learn the importance of preventing sex abuse in their churches, tending to victims and investigating the crimes when they occur.​

​Survivors flock to Rome, seek justice

In the keynote speech, Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle choked up several times as he told the bishops that the wounds the scandal has caused among the faithful recalled the wounds of Christ on the cross. He demanded they longer run in fear or turn a blind eye to the harm caused by clergy sex abuse and their own inaction to halt the problem.

“Faith that would like to close its eyes to people’s suffering is just an illusion,” he said.

Abuse survivors have turned out in droves, coming to Rome to demand accountability and transparency from church leaders, saying the time of cover-ups is over.

Phil Saviano, who helped expose the U.S. abuse scandal by priests two decades ago, demanded that the Vatican release the names of abusers and their files.

“Do it to break the code of silence,” he told the organizing committee on the eve of the summit. “Do it out of respect for the victims of these men, and do it to help prevent these creeps from abusing any more children.”

Lowered expectations

The Vatican isn’t expecting any miracles or even a final document to come out of the summit, and the pope himself has tried to lower expectations.

But organizers say the meeting marks a turning point in the way the Catholic Church has dealt with the problem, with Francis’ own acknowledgment of his mistakes in handling the Chile abuse case a key point of departure.

“Our lack of response to the suffering of victims, yes even to the point of rejecting them and covering up the scandal to protect perpetrators and the institution has injured our people,” Tagle said in his speech. The result, he said, had left a “deep wound in our relationship with those we are sent to serve.”

Statue pulled down

Before the Vatican summit opened, activists in Poland pulled down a statue of a priest early Thursday after increasing allegations that he sexually abused minors. They said the stunt was to protest the failure of the Polish Catholic Church in resolving the problem of clergy sex abuse.

Video footage showed three men attaching a rope around the statue of the late Monsignor Henryk Jankowski in the northern city of Gdansk and pulling it to the ground in the dark. They then placed children’s underwear in one of the statue’s hands and a white lace church vestment worn by altar boys on the statue’s body.

The private broadcaster TVN24 reported the three men were arrested.

Jankowski, who died in 2010, rose to prominence in the 1980s through his support for the pro-democracy Solidarity movement against Poland’s communist regime. World leaders including President George H.W. Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited his church in recognition of his anti-communist activity.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Putin Vows to Target US If Washington Deploys Missiles in Europe

Delivering his annual speech to Russian parliament Feb. 20, President Vladimir Putin promised an “asymmetric” response to the West and specifically to the United States, should Washington decide to deploy its intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. The Russian leader said his country would target “decision-making centers” in the West, if the US doesn’t give credence to Moscow’s concerns. Responding to Putin’s remarks, NATO said such threats are “unacceptable. Igor Tsikhanenka has more.

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.

Putin Threatens US with New Weapons if Missiles Deployed to Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow plans to target the United States with new hypersonic weapons if Washington deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

 

“Russia will be forced to create and deploy weapons that can both be used on the territories from which the direct threat to us originates, as well as the territories where the centers of decision-making are located,” Putin said during his 15th State of the Nation address before the federal assembly in Moscow on Wednesday.

Putin’s frequent references to the moribund 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty came amid record-low approval ratings for the fourth-term Russian leader.

 

Putin rejected U.S. assertions that Washington’s decision to withdraw from the landmark arms control pact was triggered by Russian violations of the agreement. He charged that the U.S. made false accusations against Russia to justify its decision to opt out of the deal.

 

“The U.S. directly and crudely violated the rules of the [INF] agreement; they have had launchers in Romania for a long time,” he said, repeating a well-worn Kremlin talking point that refers to a Romania-based U.S. anti-ballistic missile system capable of firing Tomahawk medium-range cruise missiles.

 

The United States has long said that system is designed to defend against “rogue” states such as Iran and provides no protection against Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

 

“Russia doesn’t intend to deploy new missiles in Europe first,” Putin added. “If the U.S. really is going to deploy missiles on the European continent, it will exacerbate the international situation and create a genuine danger for Russia, as there will be missiles with a 10-12 minute flight time to Moscow.”

 

He then seemed to taunt the U.S., calling on leaders to calculate the range and speed of Russia’s most advanced weapons.

 

“It’s their right to think how they want,” he said about U.S. leaders. “But can they count? I’m sure they can. Let them count the speed and the range of the weapons systems we are developing.

“The tests of Poseidon, an unmanned submarine with unlimited range, are going well… This hasn’t previously been said, but today I can say that by the spring of this year, the first atomic submarine will have been launched into the water.

 

“We are ready for disarmament talks, but we are no longer going to knock on a closed door,” he later said.

 

Russia began voicing skepticism about the value of a sustained bilateral arms treaty more than 10 years ago, when Kremlin officials asked the administration of then-President George W. Bush to consider expanding the treaty to bring rising nuclear powers such as China into compliance.

 

The majority of China’s nuclear arsenal is classified as intermediate range, meaning Chinese compliance with the INF would be tantamount to a wholesale forfeiture of its arsenal.

 

In December, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced U.S. plans to withdraw from the INF, he gave Russia 60 days to come back into compliance with the terms of the nuclear weapons pact, leaving the door open to reverse the withdrawal process.

 

“Russia has not taken the necessary steps to return to compliance over the last 60 days,” Pompeo said in a prepared statement on February 1. “It remains in material breach of its obligations not to produce, possess, or flight-test a ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missile system with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

 

“The United States has gone to tremendous lengths to preserve the INF Treaty, engaging with Russian officials more than 30 times in nearly six years to discuss Russia’s violation, including at the highest levels of government,” he added.

According to terms of the original INF agreement, Moscow and Washington are obligated to six months of negotiations over differences, which, if unresolved, constitute full withdrawal from the treaty.

 

If the U.S. puts additional weapons in European host countries, Putin warned that Russia would not only target those nations, but field new weapons that will target “U.S. decision-making centers.”

 

Some information for this report is from AP and Reuters.

 

Build a better website in less than an hour. Start for free at us.