Vatican comes under tough grilling by UN rights committee for its handling of child sex abuse

GENEVA (AP) -- The dressing down came in the unlikeliest of places, a stuffy U.N. conference room before an obscure human rights committee. After decades of fending off accusations that its policies and culture of secrecy had contributed to the global priest sex abuse scandal, the Vatican was called to account.

U.N. experts interrogated The Holy See for eight hours on Thursday about the scale of abuse and what it was doing to prevent it, marking the first time the Vatican had been forced to defend its record at length or in public.

It resembled a courtroom cross-examination, only no question was off-limits, dodging the answer wasn’t an option and the proceedings were webcast live.

The Vatican was compelled to appear before the committee as a signatory to the U.N. Convention for the Rights of the Child, which among other things calls for governments to take all adequate measures to protect children from harm and ensure their interests are placed above all else.

The Holy See was one of the first states to ratify the treaty in 1990, eager to contribute the church’s experience in caring for children in Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages and refugee centers. The Holy See submitted a first implementation report in 1994, but didn’t provide progress reports for nearly two decades until 2012.

For Obama, NSA review a quest to regain public trust in surveillance operations

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Faced with Edward Snowden’s first leaks about the government’s sweeping surveillance apparatus, President Barack Obama’s message to Americans boiled down to this: trust me.

"I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about," Obama said in June, days after the initial disclosure about the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone data from millions of people.

But the leaks kept coming. They painted a picture of a clandestine spy program that indiscriminately scooped up phone and Internet records, while also secretly keeping tabs on the communications of friendly foreign leaders, like Germany’s Angela Merkel.

On Friday, Obama will unveil a much-anticipated blueprint on the future of those endeavors. His changes appear to be an implicit acknowledgement that the trust he thought Americans would have in the spy operations is shaky at best. His focus is expected to be on steps that increase oversight and transparency while largely leaving the framework of the programs in place.

The president is expected to back the creation of an independent public advocate on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves the bulk collections and currently only hears arguments from the government. And seeking to soothe international anger, Obama will extend some privacy protections to foreigners and increase oversight of the process used to decide on foreign leader monitoring.

Egypt’s army chief said to be focusing on country’s problems before likely presidential run

CAIRO (AP) -- Having secured victory in a referendum on a relatively liberal constitution that he championed, Egypt’s military chief is turning his attention to the country’s overwhelming array of problems -- from health and education to government subsidies and investment, insiders said Thursday.

The revelations offer the latest indication that Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is planning a run for president, capping a stunning transformation for the 59-year-old officer who started in the infantry.

He was widely seen as an obscure and acquiescent subordinate a year and a half ago when then-President Mohammed Morsi promoted him to defense minister in what has emerged as a colossal political miscalculation.

In swift succession, el-Sissi threw Morsi in jail along with hundreds of his Islamist cohorts, his Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist group with membership in it banned, and a carefully orchestrated personality cult appears to have been successfully engineered for the general.

El-Sissi remains an enigma: Little is known about his private life, other than he is married with four children. His daily activities and whereabouts are generally hidden from view.

Legal clash in the digital age: Can police search an arrestee’s cellphone without a warrant?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court decided 40 years ago that police don’t need a search warrant to look through anything a person is carrying when arrested. But that was long before smartphones gave people the ability to take with them the equivalent of millions of pages of documents or thousands of photographs.

In a new clash over technology and privacy, the court is being asked to resolve divisions among federal and state courts over whether the old rules should still apply in the digital age.

The justices could say as early as Friday whether they will hear appeals involving warrantless cellphone searches that led to criminal convictions and lengthy prison terms.

There are parallels to other cases making their way through the federal courts, including the much-publicized ones that challenge the massive collection without warrants of telephone records by the National Security Agency. Though the details and scale are far different -- searching a single phone for evidence that could send someone to jail versus gathering huge amounts of data, almost all of which will never be used -- In both situations the government is relying on Supreme Court decisions from the 1970s, when most households still had rotary-dial telephones.

Cellphones are now everywhere. More than 90 percent of Americans own at least one, the Pew Research Center says, and the majority of those are smartphones -- essentially increasingly powerful computers that are also telephones.

Cost of flying keeps climbing: Airfares rise 12 percent in 5 years, not counting extra fees

NEW YORK (AP) -- The price to board an airliner in the United States has risen for the fourth straight year, making it increasingly expensive to fly almost anywhere.

The average domestic roundtrip ticket, including tax, reached $363.42 last year, up more than $7 from the prior year, according to an Associated Press analysis of travel data collected from millions of flights throughout the country.

The 2 percent increase outpaced inflation, which stood at 1.5 percent.

Airfares have risen nearly 12 percent since their low in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, when adjusted for inflation, the analysis showed.

Ticket prices have increased as airlines eliminated unprofitable routes, packed more passengers into planes and merged with one another, providing travelers with fewer options.

Syrian government allows humanitarian aid into 2 contested areas near the capital

BEIRUT (AP) -- The Syrian government allowed supplies to enter two contested front-line areas near the capital, a relief official said Thursday. Activists said the death toll from two weeks of infighting in the north between rebel forces and an al-Qaida-linked group climbed to more than 1,000 people.

The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Khaled Iriqsousi, told The Associated Press that enough supplies to feed 10,000 people for a month entered the Damascus suburbs of al-Ghezlaniya and Jdaidet al-Shibani on Thursday. The areas are east and west of the capital of a region known as Ghouta.

The government’s decision to permit the supplies to enter appeared to be a goodwill gesture on its part as well as an attempt to present itself as a responsible partner ahead of a peace conference scheduled to open next week in Switzerland. It was not clear whether the move was part of arrangement agreed to by Damascus and the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, to allow humanitarian aid into some blocked-off areas.

That agreement was announced Tuesday in Paris by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who together are working to ease the bloody strife that has engulfed Syria since an uprising there began nearly three years ago.

In Washington, Kerry on Thursday reiterated his call for the main Western-backed opposition group to attend the United Nations-brokered peace talks. The Syrian National Coalition is scheduled to meet Friday in Turkey to decide whether to take part in the so-called Geneva conference.

Amid gains for gay rights, anti-gay laws and attitudes remain entrenched in many countries

While gay-rights activists celebrate gains in much of the world, their setbacks have been equally far-flung, and often sweeping in scope.

In Russia, a new law against "gay propaganda" has left gays and lesbians unsure of what public actions they can take without risking arrest. In India, gay-rights supporters were stunned by a recent high court ruling re-criminalizing gay sex. A newly signed law in Nigeria sets 10-year prison terms for joining or promoting any gay organization, while a pending bill in Uganda would impose life sentences for some types of gay sex.

In such countries, repression of gays is depicted by political leaders as a defense of traditional values. The measures often have broad support from religious leaders and the public, limiting the impact of criticism from outsiders. The upshot: A world likely to be bitterly divided over gay rights for years to come.

Globally, the contrasts are striking. Sixteen countries have legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, including Canada, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and New Zealand as well as 10 European nations, and gay marriage is legal in parts of the United States and Mexico. Yet at least 76 countries retain laws criminalizing gay sex, including five where it’s punishable by death.

Here’s a look at major regions where the gay-rights movement remains embattled or marginalized:

Oscar front-runner status elusive among ‘Gravity,’ ‘American Hustle’ and ‘12 Years a Slave’

In a hydra-headed Oscar race, "American Hustle," "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" all have legitimate claims to favorite status. And that’s a good thing.

Even if a front-runner emerges from the much-nominated trio over the six weeks leading up to the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, the credentials of each film should be plenty to heighten nerves and add to the drama on Oscar night.

"It’s an extremely competitive year," said David O. Russell, whose "American Hustle" landed 10 nods, tied for most with "Gravity," in nominations announced Thursday from Beverly Hills, Calif. "It could go any which way."

Steve McQueen’s "12 Years a Slave," an unflinching depiction of 19th century American slavery, trailed close behind with nine nominations, including nods for McQueen, lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and supporting players Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Since its festival debut, it’s been seen by many as the movie to beat, a film bearing heavy historical gravitas that the lighter "American Hustle" and the literally weightless "Gravity" can’t match.

But Russell’s wild Abscam comedy, thick in 1970s style, has ridden a wave of enthusiasm for its manic performances. It’s three in a row for Russell, too, who may be due for bigger Oscar wins than his much-nominated films "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Fighter" managed. A year after "Silver Linings Playbook" landed nominations in all four acting categories, "Hustle" managed the same feat with Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper all receiving nods.