Syria war is everybody's problem






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • NEW: United States will give food and medical aid to rebel fighters for the first time

  • NEW: It's not clear how much that aid is worth, but $60 million will go to opposition council

  • NEW: "Behave as a human being," opposition leader urges Syrian president

  • U.S. officials are considering more nonlethal military aid




Rome (CNN) -- The United States stepped further into Syria's civil war Thursday, promising rebel fighters food and medical supplies -- but not weapons -- for the first time in the nearly two-year conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives and laid waste to large portions of the country.


Secretary of State John Kerry said the aid would help fighters in the high-stakes effort to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a conflict that has already spawned an enormous humanitarian crisis as refugees flee the fighting.


The ongoing fighting also poses the persistent threat of widening into a destabilizing regional crisis.


"The United States' decision to take further steps now is the result of the continued brutality of a superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah, all of which threatens to destroy Syria," Kerry said after meeting opposition leaders in Rome.


Kerry didn't say how much that aid would be worth, but did announce that the United States would separately give $60 million to local groups working with the Syrian National Council to provide political administration and basic services in rebel-controlled areas of Syria.








READ: U.S. weighing nonlethal aid to Syrian opposition


That's on top of $50 million in similar aid the United States has previously pledged to the council, as well as $385 million in humanitarian assistance, Kerry said.


"This funding will allow the opposition to reach out and help the local councils to be able to rebuild in their liberated areas of Syria so that they can provide basic services to people who so often lack access today to medical care, to food, to sanitation," he said.


Islamist Influence


That aid is partly an effort to hem in radical Islamist groups vying for influence in Syria after the fall of al-Assad, a senior State Department official told CNN.


"If the Syrian opposition coalition can't touch, improve and heal the lives of Syrians in those places that have been freed, then extremists will step in and do it," the official said.


Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, president of the Syrian National Council, said concerns about Islamist influence had been overstated.


"We stand against every radical belief that aims to target Syria's diverse social and religious fabric," he said.


READ: Inside Syria: Exclusive look at pro-Assad Christian militia


U.S. officials hope the aid will help the coalition show what it can do and encourage al-Assad supporters to "peel away from him" and help end the fighting, the official said.


The opposition council will decide where the money goes, Kerry said.


But the United States will send technical advisers through its partners to the group's Cairo headquarters to make sure it's being used properly, the senior State Department official said.


Additional aid possible


In addition to the decision to give rebel fighters food and medical supplies, President Barack Obama is thinking about training rebels and equipping them with defensive gear such as night vision goggles, body armor and military vehicles, according to sources familiar with the discussions.


The training would help rebels decide how to use their resources, strategize and maybe train a police force to take over after al-Assad's fall, one of the sources said.


READ: Syrian army in Homs is showing strains of war


Kerry did not announce that sort of aid Thursday, but said the United States and other countries backing the rebels would "continue to consult with each other on an urgent basis."


An official who briefed reporters said the opposition has raised a lot of needs in the Rome meetings and the administration will continue to "keep those under review."


"We will do this with vetted individuals, vetted units, so it has to be done carefully and appropriately," the official said.


Humanitarian crisis


The conflict began with demands for political reform after the Arab Spring movement that swept the Middle East and Africa, but descended into a brutal civil war when the al-Assad regime began a brutal crackdown on demonstrators.


At least 60,000 people have died since the fighting began in March 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in early January.


Another 940,000 had fled the country as of Tuesday, while more than one in 10 of Syria's 20 million residents have been forced to move elsewhere inside the country because of the fighting, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said.


The situation is nearing crisis proportions, with the dramatic influx of refugees threatening to break the ability of host nations to provide for their needs, Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Tuesday


"The host states, including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the North African countries, have been exemplary in their different ways, but we fear the pressure will start to overwhelm their capacities," she told the council, according to a text of her remarks posted on the United Nations website.


Al-Khatib said it's time for the fighting to stop.


"I ask Bashar al-Assad for once, just once, to behave as a human being," he said. "Enough massacres, enough killings. Enough of your bloodshed and enough torture. I urge you to make a rational decision once in your life and end the killings."


READ: Syrian war is everybody's problem


Jill Dougherty reported from Rome, and Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Elise Labott also contributed to this report.






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Journalist Woodward said he received White House warning









WASHINGTON—





A prominent Washington journalist said in interviews on Wednesday a senior White House official warned him he would "regret" publishing a story challenging the White House's account of how the idea for automatic spending cuts originated.

Bob Woodward said in interviews with Politico and CNN that when he informed the White House he was writing a story critical of the White House's handling of a debate over the origin of the cuts, known as sequestration, the official reacted angrily.

The aide "yelled at me for about a half hour," Woodward told Politico, and then followed up the tirade with an email.

"I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today," the official wrote Woodward. "You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. ... I think you will regret staking out that claim."

Politico reported that Woodward saw the statement as a veiled threat.

"I've tangled with lots of these people," said the journalist, who established his reputation by breaking the story of the Watergate break-in under President Richard Nixon and has written a series of best selling books about Washington politics.

"But suppose there's a young reporter who's only had a couple of years — or 10 years' — experience and the White House is sending him an email saying, ‘You're going to regret this,'" Woodward said. "You know, tremble, tremble. I don't think it's the way to operate."

Some $85 billion in spending cuts are due to go into effect Friday unless Congress acts, and with the deadline approaching there is practically no movement toward preventing them. President Barack Obama has scheduled a meeting with congressional leaders on Friday, but little is expected of the encounter.

The president has crisscrossed the country in recent weeks to draw attention to the inconveniences and problems from the cuts, which economists say could shave 0.6 percentage points off of already anemic U.S. growth.

While the president has been conducting that campaign, the spat over what Woodward calls the "paternity" of the sequester has proven a distracting sideshow to the fiscal battle.

The administration has sought to counter charges by Republicans that the sequestration cuts were proposed by Obama administration officials.

Woodward's book "The Price of Politics" is a fly-on-the-wall account of the negotiations in 2011 that ended with a deal to raise the nation's debt limit. As part of the deal, both sides agreed to make additional efforts to reduce the national budget deficit, and proposed the sequester as an alternative so unappealing that it would force the administration and congressional Republicans to find common ground.

That deal proved elusive and both sides are currently trading blame for the sequestration cuts.

TWITTER FUN

Woodward said in an article in the Washington Post on Friday that the president and his chief of staff at the time, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, were wrong in initially claiming last year that the sequester was the Republicans' idea.

"Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and (Rob)Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid," Woodward said. "They did so at 2:30 p.m. July 27, 2011, according to interviews with two senior White House aides who were directly involved." Nabors was then the White House's chief liaison to Congress and is now deputy chief of staff.

The administration has argued that both sides agreed to the terms of the sequester and has pointed to comments at the time from House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, that he was for the most part satisfied with the deal that spawned the arrangement.

Woodward's account of his recent testy exchange with the White House points to continued sensitivity over the issue of whose idea the sequester was.

A White House official said in an emailed response to Reuters that no threat was intended by the comment.

"The email from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation," the aide said. "The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more."

The BuzzFeed news website identified the official who tangled with Woodward as Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council. The White House did not respond to a request to confirm the identity of the official.

News of the exchange drew instant reaction from Washington insiders on Twitter, much of poking fun at the war of words.

"My amateur advice: stop cooperating with Woodward in the first place," wrote Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress think tank and a former Obama campaign advisor.

"Hey, guess what? All of you will talk to Woodward for his next book, too," wrote Tony Fratto of Hamilton Place Strategies and a former White House official under President George W. Bush.



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Wall Street inches up after data

MADRID, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Lionel Messi has rarely been accused of failing to deliver in big games, having scored in two European Cup finals, but after subdued performances against AC Milan and Real Madrid, questions are being asked. The four-times World Player of the Year and leading scorer in one of the greatest club teams of all time, was a shadow of his usual self at the San Siro in a Champions League last-16 first leg last week, when Barcelona slumped to a 2-0 defeat. ...
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Minnesota takes down No. 1 Indiana 77-73


MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Retaining that No. 1 national ranking has been elusive throughout this wild season in college basketball, and Indiana was the latest to lose at the top — again.


Most important and maybe more challenging for the Hoosiers, however, is holding on to first place in the tough-as-ever Big Ten.


Trevor Mbakwe had 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting and 12 rebounds to help Minnesota take down top-ranked Indiana 77-73 on Tuesday night, the seventh time the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll has lost this season. Three of those losses were by the Hoosiers, who were No. 1 when they fell to Butler and Wisconsin earlier this season. All three opponents were unranked at the time.


Indiana (24-4, 12-3) has held the No. 1 ranking for 10 of the 17 polls by the AP this season, including the last four, and that will likely change next week. But fending off Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin is what's on the minds of the Hoosiers, who'll take a one-game lead in the conference race into Saturday's game against Iowa.


"Winning the Big Ten was going to be tough whether we won today or lost," said star guard Victor Oladipo, who had 16 points. "We knew it was going to be tough from the jump. Now it's even tougher. But I think my team is ready for it. We just have to go back and see what we did wrong and correct it."


Andre Hollins added 16 points for the Gophers (19-9, 7-8), who outrebounded Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers by a whopping 44-30 and solidified their slipping NCAA tournament hopes with an emphatic performance against the conference leader. The fired-up fans swarmed the court as the last seconds ticked off, the first time that's happened here since a 2002 win over Indiana.


"There were just too many times when that first shot went up and they were there before we were because we didn't get into their bodies," Hoosiers coach Tom Crean said. "We weren't physical enough on the glass. That's the bottom line."


Zeller, the second-leading shooter in the Big Ten, went 2 for 9. He had nine points with four turnovers. Minnesota had 40 points in the paint to Indiana's 22.


Mbakwe, a sixth-year senior, had a lot to do with that. While positing his conference-leading seventh double-double of the season, the 24-year-old Mbakwe was a man among boys in many ways in this game, dominating both ends of the court when the Gophers needed him most. He grabbed six of Minnesota's 23 offensive rebounds, two of them to keep a key possession alive. His off-balance put-back drew contact for a three-point play with 7:22 left that gave the Gophers a 55-52 lead.


Mbakwe was called for a loudly questioned blocking foul, his fourth, with 4:39 remaining on Zeller's fast-break layup and free throw that put the Hoosiers up 59-58. But Austin Hollins answered with a pump-fake layup that drew a foul for a three-point play and a two-point advantage for the Gophers.


The Hoosiers didn't lead again, and Joe Coleman's fast-break dunk with 2:35 left gave Minnesota a 68-61 cushion that helped it withstand a couple of 3-pointers by Christian Watford and one by Jordan Hulls in the closing minutes. That was the only basket Hulls made after halftime. He had 17 points.


"Just the way we bounced back is unbelievable. We showed that we can beat one of the best teams in the country. Now we have to build off this," said Mbakwe, whose team lost eight of its previous 11 games starting with an 88-81 loss at Indiana on Jan. 12. The Gophers were ranked eighth then. They didn't even receive a vote in the current poll. That could change next week.


The Hoosiers are still in position for their first outright Big Ten regular-season championship since 1993. With another home game against Ohio State on March 5, Indiana could still clinch the title before the finale at Michigan on March 10.


For now, though, the Hoosiers have to regroup and re-establish their inside game after the trampling in the post they endured here.


"They were relentless on the glass. We just didn't do a great job of boxing them out," Oladipo said.


___


Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP


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‘Star Trek’ Beams Into Oscar Night






Star Trek” fans got quite a treat last night during the Academy Awards last night (Feb. 24).


Actors who portray major characters from the film and television versions of the iconic science fiction series made cameo appearances during the three-hour-long ceremony celebrating the best movies of 2012.






William Shatner, the actor that played Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in original series helped open the awards show with host, Seth McFarlane.


“I’ve come back in time from the 23rd century to stop you from destroying the Academy Awards,” joked Shatner to McFarlane.


Actors Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana also had a part to play in the festivities. Pine, who plays Kirk in 2009′s “Star Trek” and its sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness “ being released later this year, and Saldana, who plays the Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura, recapped an earlier event they co-hosted on Feb. 10 called the “Sci-Tech Oscars.”


The smaller ceremony is designed to showcase the technical achievements of designers and technicians on movie sets.


The newest movie in the Star Trek franchise, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” is set to be released on May 17.


Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+


Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Benedict: Pope aware of his flaws?




Pope Benedict XVI delivers his last Angelus Blessing to thousands of pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter's Square on February 24.




STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Sister Mary Ann Walsh: Pope Benedict acknowledged that he made mistakes

  • Walsh: In firestorm over scholarly quotes about Islam, he went to great lengths to atone

  • Walsh: Similarly, he quickly reversed a decision that had angered Jews and repaired ties

  • Even his stepping down is a nod to his humanity and his love of the church, she says




Editor's note: Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Regional Community. She is a former foreign correspondent at Catholic News Service (CNS) in Rome and the editor of "John Paul II: A Light for the World," "Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on his Papacy," and "From Pope John Paul II to Benedict XVI."


(CNN) -- One of the Bible's paradoxical statements comes from St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: "Power is made perfect in infirmity."


The poetic statement proclaims that when we are weak, we are strong. Pope Benedict XVI's stepping down from what many consider one of the most powerful positions in the world proves it. In a position associated with infallibility -- though that refers to formal proclamations on faith and morals -- the pope declares his weakness.



Sister Mary Ann Walsh

Sister Mary Ann Walsh



His acceptance of frailty speaks realistically about humanity: We grow old, weaken, and eventually die. A job, even one guided by the Holy Spirit, as we Roman Catholics believe, can become too much for us.


Acceptance of human frailty has marked this papacy. We all make mistakes, but the pope makes them on a huge stage.


He was barely into his papacy, for example, when he visited Regensburg, Germany, where he once taught theology. Like many a professor, he offered a provocative statement to get the conversation going. To introduce the theme of his lecture, the pope quoted from an account of a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed Muslim scholar, sometime near the end of the 14th century -- a quote that was misinterpreted by some as a condemnation of Mohammed and Islam.


Opinion: 'Gay lobby' behind pope's resignation? Not likely


Twice, the pope emphasized that he was quoting someone else's words. Unfortunately, the statement about Islam was taken as insult, not a discussion opener, and sparked rage throughout the Muslim world.


The startled pope had to explain himself. He apologized and traveled two months later to Istanbul's Blue Mosque, where he stood shoeless in prayer beside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul. Later he hosted Muslim leaders at the Vatican at the start of a Catholic-Muslim forum for dialogue. It was a human moment -- a mistake, an apology and atonement -- all round.










A similar controversy erupted when he tried to bring the schismatic Society of St. Pius X back into the Roman Catholic fold.


In a grand gesture toward reconciliation, he lifted the excommunication of four of its bishops, unaware that one, Richard Williamson, was a Holocaust denier. This outraged many Jews. Subsequently the Vatican said the bishop had not been vetted, and in a bow to modernity said officials at least should have looked him up on the Internet.


In humble response, Benedict reiterated his condemnation of anti-Semitism and told Williamson that he must recant his Holocaust views to be fully reinstated. Again, his admission of a mistake and an effort to mend fences.


News: Scandal threatens to overshadow pope's final days


Pope Benedict XVI came from a Catholic Bavarian town. Childhood family jaunts included trips to the shrine of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Altotting. He entered the seminary at the age of 13. He became a priest, scholar and theologian. He lived his life in service to the church. Even in resigning from the papacy, he embraces the monastic life to pray for a church he has ever loved.


With hindsight, his visit to the tomb of 13th century Pope Celestine V, a Benedictine monk who resigned from the papacy eight centuries before, becomes poignant.


In 2009, on a visit to Aquila, Italy, Benedict left at Celestine's tomb the pallium, a stole-like vestment that signifies episcopal authority, that Benedict had worn for his installation as pope. The gesture takes on more meaning as the monkish Benedict steps down.


We expect the pope to be perfect. Catholics hold him to be the vicar of Christ on earth. He stands as a spiritual leader for much of the world. Statesmen visit him from around the globe. He lives among splendid architecture, in the shadow of the domed St. Peter's Basilica. All testify to an almost surreal omnipotence.


Complete coverage of the pope's resignation


In this world, however, walked a vulnerable, human person. And in a paradox of life, his most human moment -- giving up the power of office -- may prove to be his most potent, delivering a message that, as St. Paul noted many centuries ago, "Power is made perfect in infirmity."


Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.


Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Ann Walsh.






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Obama to meet with congressional leaders to discuss budget cuts




















Speaker of the House John Boehner tells Scott Pelley in a "CBS Evening News" interview that a budget deal is now out of his hands.




















































WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama will meet with top congressional leaders on Friday to discuss the deep, automatic government spending cuts slated to go into effect that day, congressional aides said


Known as the sequester or sequestration, the cuts amount indiscriminate across-the-board reductions in federal spending totalling $85 billion.


Obama is set to meet with Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.








"The meeting Friday is an opportunity for us to visit with the president about how we can all keep our commitment to reduce Washington spending," McConnell said in a statement.


"We can either secure those reductions more intelligently, or we can do it the president's way with across-the board cuts. But one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to," he said.


Republicans on Capitol Hill immediately questioned Obama's intent.


"If the president is serious about stopping the sequester, why did he schedule a meeting on Tuesday for Friday when the sequester hits at midnight on Thursday?” asked a Republican congressional aide who was not authorized to talk about the private meeting. "Either someone needs to buy the White House a calendar, or this is just a belated farce.  They ought to at least pretend to try."


Reuters and Lisa Mascaro, the Los Angeles Times






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SAfrica: judge in Pistorius case suffers loss


JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Last week, the judge who granted bail to Oscar Pistorius was in the international spotlight, presiding over dramatic hearings in a courtroom as the Olympic athlete sat in the dock charged with murdering his girlfriend. This week, the judge is in private mourning.


Desmond Nair, chief magistrate of the Pretoria Magistrate's Court, confirmed Tuesday that he is related to a woman suspected of killing her two children and committing suicide on the weekend.


The revelation was the latest twist in the saga of Pistorius and prominent figures linked to the case against the double-amputee athlete, who faces a charge of premeditated murder in the Feb. 14 shooting death of Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model who appeared in a television reality show.


The bodies of a woman and her two sons were found Sunday evening at their Johannesburg home by her ex-husband, police Warrant Officer Balan Muthan said. Authorities suspect the woman administered a substance that killed her children, and took her own life by ingesting it as well.


"I can confirm the deceased is my first cousin," Nair told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.


The woman's brother, Vishal Maharaj, identified her as Anusha Maharaj. Police said Maharaj was her family name before she married. South African media identified her as Anusha Mooljee.


Muthan said police suspect "she took her own life by ingesting a substance that killed her," and that she "most probably" gave the same substance to her children. Autopsies were conducted Monday and toxicologists were analyzing the substance believed to have killed the three family members.


Suicide notes were found and a murder investigation was underway, Muthan said. He said copies of the notes were admitted as evidence in the probe and declined to comment on the contents.


Eyewitness News, a South African media outlet, said the boys who died were 12 and 17 years old and cited neighbor Claire Osment as saying she rushed outside after hearing screams coming from the townhouse where they lived.


"We asked what happened. The dad just said, 'She has killed my boys.' He was just crying," Eyewitness News quoted her as saying. "He couldn't believe it, he couldn't believe that his sons are gone."


Nair, 44, has presided over a number of high-profile cases, including the 2008 conviction on fraud charges of Sydney Maree, a South African who took American citizenship and became a track star in the United States; a 2011 plea agreement in which rugby player Bees Roux received a five-year suspended prison sentence for the beating death of a policeman; and inquiries into alleged misconduct by magistrates around South Africa.


On Friday, Nair delivered a lengthy discourse on why he was granting bail to Pistorius, including an assertion that prosecutors had not argued persuasively that the Paralympian was a flight risk. Nair criticized shortcomings in the state's investigation, but he also said aspects of Pistorius' account of what happened were not convincing.


Pistorius says he killed Steenkamp accidentally, opening fire after mistaking her for an intruder in his home. Prosecutors alleged he intentionally shot her after the couple had an argument.


Last week, the chief investigator in the case against Pistorius, Hilton Botha, was removed from the inquiry after it was revealed that attempted murder charges against him had been reinstated in early February. The charges relate to a 2011 incident in which Botha and two other police officers allegedly fired on a minibus.


In another surprise, a lawyer for the Pistorius family said Sunday that Oscar's brother, Carl, faces a charge of unlawful, negligent killing for a 2008 road death. That charge had also been dropped and later reinstated.


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‘Star Trek’ Beams Into Oscar Night






Star Trek” fans got quite a treat last night during the Academy Awards last night (Feb. 24).


Actors who portray major characters from the film and television versions of the iconic science fiction series made cameo appearances during the three-hour-long ceremony celebrating the best movies of 2012.






William Shatner, the actor that played Starship Enterprise captain James T. Kirk in original series helped open the awards show with host, Seth McFarlane.


“I’ve come back in time from the 23rd century to stop you from destroying the Academy Awards,” joked Shatner to McFarlane.


Actors Chris Pine and Zoe Saldana also had a part to play in the festivities. Pine, who plays Kirk in 2009′s “Star Trek” and its sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness “ being released later this year, and Saldana, who plays the Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura, recapped an earlier event they co-hosted on Feb. 10 called the “Sci-Tech Oscars.”


The smaller ceremony is designed to showcase the technical achievements of designers and technicians on movie sets.


The newest movie in the Star Trek franchise, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” is set to be released on May 17.


Follow Miriam Kramer on Twitter @mirikramer or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We’re also on Facebook & Google+


Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Vatican 'Gay lobby'? Probably not






STORY HIGHLIGHTS


  • Benedict XVI not stepping down under pressure from 'gay lobby,' Allen says

  • Allen: Benedict is a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government

  • However, he says, much of the pope's time has been spent putting out fires




Editor's note: John L. Allen Jr. is CNN's senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.


(CNN) -- Suffice it to say that of all possible storylines to emerge, heading into the election of a new pope, sensational charges of a shadowy "gay lobby" (possibly linked to blackmail), whose occult influence may have been behind the resignation of Benedict XVI, would be right at the bottom of the Vatican's wish list.


Proof of the Vatican's irritation came with a blistering statement Saturday complaining of "unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories," even suggesting the media is trying to influence the papal election.


Two basic questions have to be asked about all this. First, is there really a secret dossier about a network of people inside the Vatican who are linked by their sexual orientation, as Italian newspaper reports have alleged? Second, is this really why Benedict XVI quit?



John L. Allen Jr.

John L. Allen Jr.



The best answers, respectively, are "maybe" and "probably not."


It's a matter of record that at the peak of last year's massive Vatican leaks crisis, Benedict XVI created a commission of three cardinals to investigate the leaks. They submitted an eyes-only report to the pope in mid-December, which has not been made public.


It's impossible to confirm whether that report looked into the possibility that people protecting secrets about their sex lives were involved with the leaks, but frankly, it would be surprising if it didn't.


There are certainly compelling reasons to consider the hypothesis. In 2007, a Vatican official was caught by an Italian TV network on hidden camera arranging a date through a gay-oriented chat room, and then taking the young man back to his Vatican apartment. In 2010, a papal ceremonial officer was caught on a wiretap arranging liaisons through a Nigerian member of a Vatican choir. Both episodes played out in full public view, and gave the Vatican a black eye.









Pope Benedict XVI































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In that context, it would be a little odd if the cardinals didn't at least consider the possibility that insiders leading a double life might be vulnerable to pressure to betray the pope's confidence. That would apply not just to sex, but also potential conflicts of other sorts too, such as financial interests.


Vatican officials have said Benedict may authorize giving the report to the 116 cardinals who will elect his successor, so they can factor it into their deliberations. The most immediate fallout is that the affair is likely to strengthen the conviction among many cardinals that the next pope has to lead a serious house-cleaning inside the Vatican's bureaucracy.


It seems a stretch, however, to suggest this is the real reason Benedict is leaving. For the most part, one should probably take the pope at his word, that old age and fatigue are the motives for his decision.


That said, it's hard not to suspect that the meltdowns and controversies that have dogged Benedict XVI for the last eight years are in the background of why he's so tired. In 2009, at the height of another frenzy surrounding the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying traditionalist bishop, Benedict dispatched a plaintive letter to the bishops of the world, voicing hurt for the way he'd been attacked and apologizing for the Vatican's mishandling of the situation.


Even if Benedict didn't resign because of any specific crisis, including this latest one, such anguish must have taken its toll. Benedict is a teaching pope, a man who prefers the life of the mind to the nuts and bolts of government, yet an enormous share of his time and energy has been consumed trying to put out internal fires.


It's hard to know why Benedict XVI is stepping off the stage, but I doubt it is because of a "gay lobby."


Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.


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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John L. Allen Jr.






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