Thursday February 28, 2013

Benedict’s legacy: A teacher pope who sought to bring church back to conservative roots

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- On Monday, April 4, 2005, a priest walked up to the Renaissance palazzo housing the Vatican’s doctrine department and asked the doorman to call the official in charge: It was the first day of business after Pope John Paul II had died, and the cleric wanted to get back to work.

The office’s No. 2, Archbishop Angelo Amato, answered the phone and was stunned: This was no ordinary priest. It was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his boss, who under the Vatican’s arcane rules had technically lost his job when John Paul died.

"It tells me of the great humility of the man, the great sense of duty, but also the great awareness that we are here to do a job," said Bishop Charles Scicluna, who worked with Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI, inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In resigning, Scicluna said, Benedict is showing the same sense of humility, duty and service as he did after the Catholic Church lost its last pope.

"He has done his job."

Fighting tears, father of Newtown victim asks Senate committee to ban assault weapons

WASHINGTON (AP) -- After weeks of arguing constitutional fine points and citing rival statistics, senators wrangling over gun control saw and heard the anguish of a bereft father.

Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was among those cut down at a Connecticut elementary school in December, asked the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to ban assault weapons like the one that killed his child.

"I’m not here for the sympathy or the pat on the back," Heslin, a 50-year-old construction worker, told the senators, weeping openly during much of his hushed 11-minute testimony. "I’m here to speak up for my son."

At his side were photos: of his son as a baby, of them both taken on Father’s Day, six months before Jesse was among 20 first-graders and six administrators killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That massacre has hoisted gun control to a primary political issue this year, though the outcome remains uncertain.

The hearing’s focus was legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines carrying more than 10 rounds. A Bushmaster assault weapon was used at Newtown by the attacker, Adam Lanza, who was found with 30-round magazines.

Obama, congressional leaders to meet as cuts kick in, avoiding reductions unlikely

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House conceded Wednesday that efforts to avoid automatic budget cuts are unlikely to succeed before they kick in and is initiating new talks with congressional leaders to confront seemingly intractable tax-and-spend issues.

President Barack Obama will meet at the White House Friday with House and Senate leaders of both parties on the same day the cuts, known in Washington-speak as a "sequester," take effect. This would put the White House and Congress essentially in the position of looking past the cuts to the next looming fiscal showdown: A March 27 deadline to continue government operations or force a government shutdown.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the White House talks, arranged Tuesday, are designed to be a "constructive discussion" about how to keep the cuts from having harmful consequences. Obama has been calling for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to achieve deficit reduction goals.

The White House has warned that the $85 billion in cuts could affect everything from commercial flights to classrooms and meat inspections. The cuts would slash domestic and defense spending, leading to forced unpaid days off for hundreds of thousands of government workers.

The cuts begin taking effect virtually at midnight Friday, the White House said, but the impact won’t be immediate. Federal workers would be notified next week that they will have to take up to a day every week off without pay, but the furloughs won’t start for a month due to notification requirements. That will give negotiators some breathing room to keep working on a deal.

Iraqi premier warns Syrian rebel victory would spark wars in Iraq and Lebanon

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq’s prime minister warned Wednesday that a victory for rebels in the Syrian civil war would create a new extremist haven and destabilize the wider Middle East, sparking sectarian wars in his own country and in Lebanon.

Nouri al-Maliki stopped short of voicing outright support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime. But his comments in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press marked one of his strongest warnings yet about the turmoil that the collapse of the Syrian government could create.

The prime minister’s remarks reflect fears by many Shiite Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere that Sunni Muslims would come to dominate Syria should Assad be toppled, and his statements could provide a measure of moral support for those fighting to keep Assad in power.

"If the world does not agree to support a peaceful solution through dialogue ... then I see no light at the end of the tunnel," al-Maliki said in his office in a Saddam Hussein-era palace inside Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone.

"Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish each other off," he continued. "The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq."

Days numbered for key part of voting rights law? Conservatives justices skeptical of need

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court’s conservative justices voiced deep skepticism Wednesday about a section of a landmark civil rights law that has helped millions of Americans exercise their right to vote.

In an ominous note for supporters of the key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Anthony Kennedy both acknowledged the measure’s vital role in fighting discrimination and suggested that other important laws in U.S. history had run their course. "Times change," Kennedy said during the fast-paced, 70-minute argument.

Kennedy’s views are likely to prevail on the closely divided court, and he tends to side with his more conservative colleagues on matters of race.

The court’s liberals and conservatives engaged in a sometimes tense back-and-forth over whether there is an ongoing need in 2013 for the part of the voting rights law that requires states with a history of discrimination, mainly in the Deep South, to get approval before making changes in the way elections are held.

Justice Antonin Scalia called the law a "perpetuation of racial entitlement."

Tweeting in North Korea: New rules allow AP to share snapshots of daily life in real time

"Hello world from comms center in (hash)Pyongyang."

That Twitter missive, sent Monday from Koryolink’s main service center in downtown Pyongyang using my iPhone, marked a milestone for North Korea: It was believed to be the first tweet sent from a cellphone using the country’s new 3G mobile data service.

Later, as we were driving through Pyongyang, I used my iPhone to snap a photo of a new roadside banner referring to North Korea’s controversial Feb. 12 nuclear test while AP’s Chief Asia photographer David Guttenfelder shot an image of a commuter walking beneath a bridge at dusk. We uploaded these images to Instagram geotagged "Pyongyang."

Pretty ordinary stuff in the world of social media, but revolutionary for North Korea, a country with an intricate set of rules designed to stage manage the flow of images and information both inside and beyond its borders.

In the past, rules were strict for tourists visiting North Korea. On a bus journey across the Demilitarized Zone into the border city of Kaesong in 2008, we were told: No cellphones, no long camera lenses, no shooting photos without permission. The curtains were drawn to prevent us from looking outside as we drove through the countryside, and through the cracks we could see soldiers stationed along the road with red flags. We were warned they’d raise those flags and stop the bus for inspection if they spotted a camera pointed out the window. As we left North Korea, immigration officials went through our cameras, clicking through the photos to make sure we weren’t taking home any images that were objectionable.

Police: Conn. woman gets grandsons from daycare on 1 boy’s 2nd birthday, kills them, herself

PRESTON, Conn. (AP) -- A woman who picked up her two young grandsons from daycare and was supposed to bring them home so the 2-year-old could open his birthday presents instead drove them to a neighboring town and shot and killed the children and herself, state police and family members said.

The bodies of 47-year-old Debra Denison and her grandsons, 2-year-old Alton Perry and 6-month-old Ashton Perry, were found Tuesday night in a car parked near Lake of Isles in Preston, in the southeastern part of the state.

State police called the deaths a double murder-suicide Wednesday, saying they believe Denison shot the boys and herself. Autopsies were planned.

Family members said Denison, the boys’ maternal grandmother, had a history of mental health problems. Marcia White, a paternal great-grandmother of the slain boys, said Denison struggled with bouts of depression but seemed to be doing well lately. The boys’ parents said that Denison had split personalities and family members described her as having bipolar disorder.

Tuesday was Alton’s second birthday. Denison picked up the children from their daycare in North Stonington Tuesday afternoon and was supposed to bring them home so Alton could open his presents, family members said.

Homeland Security official quits after illegal immigrants freed over budget cuts

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The senior Homeland Security Department official in charge of arresting and deporting illegal immigrants announced his resignation the same day the agency said that hundreds of people facing deportation had been released from immigration jails due to looming budget cuts, according to a resignation letter obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press. The government said he had told his bosses weeks ago that he planned to retire.

Gary Mead, executive associate director over enforcement and removal operations at Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, disclosed his departure in an email to his staff Tuesday afternoon. The announcement of the release of the illegal immigrants had come earlier in the day.

President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said Wednesday that the decision to release the immigrants was made without any input from the White House. He described the immigrants as "low-risk, non-criminal detainees."

The announcement that a few hundred illegal immigrants were being released was among the most significant and direct implications described so far by the Obama administration about the pending, automatic budget cuts that will take effect later this week under what is known as sequestration.

Republicans in Congress quickly criticized the decision and pressed the Homeland Security Department for details.

Lindsay Lohan’s lawyer says actress is committed to life changes, serious about helping others

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Lindsay Lohan is committed to turning her life around and wants to record public service announcements on the dangers of domestic violence, alcohol abuse and drunken driving, her attorney said Wednesday.

Mark Heller told The Associated Press that the actress’ plans are independent of a criminal case that could return her to jail on charges that she lied to police about being a passenger in her car when it slammed into a dump truck in June.

The "Liz & Dick" star has been repeatedly sentenced to jail, rehab, and community service since her first pair of arrests for driving under the influence in 2007. She spent several months in court-ordered psychotherapy until a judge released her from supervised probation in March 2012.

As part of the intense psychotherapy sessions, Lohan is in the beginning stages of trying to become an inspirational speaker to young people, he said.

"I think she suddenly woke up one morning and had an epiphany and she suddenly realized and appreciated the seriousness of the events that led to her being in court," Heller said.

Pistorius representatives: Substance found in his bedroom was to aid ‘muscle recovery’

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- The substance found in Oscar Pistorius’ bedroom after the shooting death of his girlfriend was identified by his representatives Wednesday as Testis compositum -- an herbal remedy they said is used for "muscle recovery." A product by that name also is sold as a sexual enhancer.

Testis compositum is marketed by some online retailers in both oral and injectable forms as a testosterone booster and sexual performance aid that contains the testicles, heart and embryo of pigs, among other ingredients. Some online retailers also say it can be used to treat fatigue.

At the Paralympian’s bail hearing last week in the shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp, police said they found needles in Pistorius’ bedroom along with the substance, which a detective initially named in court as testosterone. Prosecutors later withdrew that statement identifying the substance and said it had been sent for lab tests and couldn’t be named until those tests were completed.

Pistorius spokeswoman Lunice Johnston said in an email to The Associated Press that the athlete’s lawyers had confirmed that the substance is Testis compositum.

In the email, Johnston wrote that the product was being used "in aid of muscle recovery." She did not say whether the substance was the same as the product that is sold as a sex enhancer.