Pell Charges Bring Abuse Scandal to Pope’s Inner Circle

A top adviser to Pope Francis was charged with multiple historical sex crimes in his native Australia on Thursday, bringing a worldwide abuse scandal to the heart of the Vatican.

Appointed Vatican economy minister by Francis, Cardinal George Pell is the highest-ranking Church official to face such accusations. He asserted his innocence and said the pontiff had given him leave of absence to return to Australia to defend himself.

“I am looking forward finally to having my day in court. I repeat that I am innocent of these charges. They are false,” the 76-year-old told a news conference at the Vatican. “The whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me.”

Pell’s high-profile departure, even if temporary, puts pressure on a pontiff who has made compassion for the vulnerable his watchword, and has declared zero tolerance for a child abuse scandal that has beset the Church for decades, but has struggled to overcome resistance in the Church hierarchy and clergy.

Pell was hand-picked by Francis to sit on a panel of nine cardinal-advisers to give a greater voice to the Church’s global flock, and to reform the Vatican’s opaque finances.

But Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne and Sydney, had come under pressure from an Australian government commission on institutional child abuse, and had himself been under investigation for at least a year.

On Thursday, police in the Australian state of Victoria, where Pell was a country priest in the 1970s, said he faced “multiple charges in respect of historical sexual offenses” from multiple complainants.

They did not detail the charges or specify the ages of the alleged victims or the period when the crimes were alleged to have occurred.

He was originally ordered to appear before Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 18, but that date has been pushed back to July 26. Australian police declined to say why the court date was changed.

Pell, who declined to take questions, decried a “relentless character assassination” by the media and said he wanted to “clear my name and then return to my work in Rome.”

Victims angered

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said Pell would not appear in public Church services for the time being.

Pell told the Australian inquiry last year that the Church had made “catastrophic” choices by refusing to believe abused children, shuffling abusive priests from parish to parish, and relying too heavily on the counsel of priests to solve the problem.

But he angered victims by saying he was too ill to fly home, testifying instead from Rome.

He indicated Thursday that he would now go to Australia.

“I have spoken to my lawyers about when I need to return home and to my doctors about how best to do this,” Pell said.

Francis said last year Pell should not undergo trial by media. 

“It’s in the hands of the justice system and one cannot judge before the justice system. … After the justice system speaks, I will speak,” the pontiff said.

The indictment of such a close adviser raised questions about Francis’ choice of personnel and his ability finally to root out the sexual abuse that had been tolerated or ignored in the Church for decades, and act against those who covered it up.

Marie Collins, the top nonclerical member of the commission on abuse that Francis established in 2014, and its last remaining victim of priestly abuse, quit in frustration in March, citing a “shameful” lack of cooperation within the Vatican.

She said the Vatican administration had even ignored a specific request from the pope that all correspondence from abuse victims should receive a response.

“The long, aching scandal that stained the previous two popes — Vatican passivity to clergy abuse cases — is the swamp Pope Francis faces,” said Jason Berry, author of “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” a book about sexual abuse in the Church.

“Unless the pope engineers systemic change, the crisis will get worse,” Berry told Reuters.

Francis was impressed by Pell when they met in 2013. In meetings among cardinals before the conclave that elected Francis pope that year, the former Australian Rules football player stood out not only for his height and broad shoulders but also for his command of financial matters.

After becoming pope, Francis, hoping to put an end to Vatican financial scandals, moved Pell to Rome to head a new ministry, the Secretariat for the Economy.

After initially giving Pell sweeping powers, the pontiff later clipped his wings when other departments accused him of an overbearing manner and of being condescending to the Italian-dominated Curia, the Church’s central administration.

Thousands of victims

Church sexual abuse broke into the open in 2002, when it was discovered that U.S. bishops in the Boston area had simply moved abusers to new posts instead of defrocking them.

Thousands of cases have come to light around the world as investigations have encouraged long-silent victims to go public, shattering the Church’s reputation in places such as Ireland, and more than $2 billion has been paid in compensation.

Under previous popes, the Vatican, a sovereign state in the middle of Rome, sheltered officials wanted by other countries.

In the early 1980s, the Vatican refused an Italian request to hand over Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, an American who was then head of the Vatican bank and was wanted for questioning about the fraudulent bankruptcy of a private Italian bank.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston moved to Rome after a sexual abuse scandal erupted in his diocese, and has been living in the Italian capital for more than 15 years.

Victims’ groups were outraged when Law, now 85 and retired, was given a plum job as chief priest at a Rome basilica by the late Pope John Paul II.

However, Francis was tough in the case of Jozef Wesolowski, a former archbishop who was accused of paying for sex with minors while serving as papal ambassador in the Dominican Republic.

Wesolowski was recalled in 2013, defrocked and arrested in the Vatican in 2014, but died shortly before his trial was to start in 2015. 

Venezuela’s Shield-bearing Protesters Inspired by Ukraine

Drawing inspiration from Ukraine’s 2013-14 revolt, Venezuela’s young protesters are donning Viking-like shields in battles with security forces and eagerly watching a film on the Kyiv uprising.

Foes of Venezuelan socialist President Nicolas Maduro are holding public showings of Netflix’s “Winter on Fire” documentary about the three-month standoff in Ukraine that led to 100 deaths and the exit of then-president Viktor Yanukovich.

In Venezuela’s anti-government unrest, where 80 people have died since April, youths bear colorfully decorated homemade shields akin to those used in Kiev’s Maidan Square.

The young Venezuelans make their shields from satellite TV dishes, drain covers, barrels or any other scraps of wood and metal they can find. Some supporters also make and donate shields.

The protesters use the shields to form walls, or even beat on them in unison, as Roman soldiers and Norsemen used to do going into battle. Fellow demonstrators cheer as the self-styled “Resistance” members link arms to walk to the front lines and face off with National Guard troops and police.

“The shields don’t stop bullets, but they do protect us from tear gas, rubber bullets and stones,” said 20-year-old law student Brian Suarez, wearing a gas mask and carrying a shield depicting Maduro in the sights of a rifle target.

Shields with a point

Other shields carry quotes and images of Venezuela’s constitution, paintings and religious symbols, depictions of the faces of slain protesters, or slogans saying “SOS!,” “No More Dictatorship!” or “Murderer, Maduro!”

While the protesters say they are fighting against tyranny in the South American oil producer, Maduro accuses them of seeking a violent coup with U.S. support.

Manuel Melo said he was on the front line of protests, hurling stones and protecting other marchers with his blue plastic shield, until one day he was caught by a water cannon.

The 20-year-old graphic design student lost his kidney from the impact.

Nevertheless, he wants to go back.

“It’s an important role being a shield-bearer because you know that everything they throw goes straight at you,” he said while recovering from his home in Caracas. “I’m not out there because I like it, but for the common good.”

‘Am I in Ukraine?’

“Winter on Fire,” by Russian director Evgeny Afineevsky, shows tens of thousands of Ukrainian protesters braving snow and baton attacks from riot police to barricade themselves in Maidan Square.

It has been discreetly shown around Venezuela, including at bookshops, a university, a public square and an arts cinema.

Forums and discussions are held afterward.

“Hearing a Ukrainian and seeing the tears in their eyes, you ask yourself: ‘Hold on, am I in Ukraine or in Cafetal?’” said university professor Carlos Delgado, referring to an upper-class part of Caracas that has vigorously supported the protests.

Delgado, 48, recently participated in a screening and forum about “Winter on Fire” at Venezuela’s Catholic University, where opposition to Maduro is also strong.

Many have also spread the word on social media.

“This documentary is unmissable,” Venezuelan actress and author Ana Maria Simon exhorted on her Instagram account. “All Venezuelans should see it, especially those who are tired, especially those close to losing faith.”

In both countries, protesters have opposed presidents they consider repressive, and the clashes turned increasingly violent. But differences abound, too.

Protesters watch weather, clock

While Ukraine’s protesters endured freezing conditions day and night, Venezuela’s thin out quickly when rain starts, and they go home in the evening and enjoy balmy Caribbean weather.

The Venezuelans point out that criminal gangs make the streets dangerous at night. And with their economy in meltdown, they are often short of medicine, food and other needs, whereas the Ukrainians had a good supply line.

Hans Wuerich, who became famous for stripping in front of an armored car with a Bible in Caracas, said “Winter on Fire” made him think Venezuela’s Resistance needed to escalate tactics.

“It’s time to take the protests to another level,” the 27-year-old reporter said in Caracas’ Altamira Square, a focus of the demonstrations. “But we need to be organized if we’re going to take the streets day and night, if it’s really about a point of no return.”

 

The Next Silicon Valley? Head to France  

France is known worldwide for its wine, food and culture, but under its new president, the French are aiming to be the new global hub for tech startups.

President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to build a version of Silicon Valley in France. His administration has launched pro-business initiatives that are loosening government restrictions and encouraging entrepreneurs to launch their startups in the country.

“The tradition has been in Europe and in France to invest in big, traditional companies and not specifically [in] tech startups. So we will dedicate a €10 billion fund to the investment in tech startups in France,” said Mounir Mahjoubi, France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs.

Both public and private investments will factor into Macron’s vision of France as a “country of unicorns” — the term popularly used for tech startups valued at $1 billion or more, said Mahjoubi, who recently was in New York City for “La French Touch” conference, where he discussed France’s strategy for attracting the tech world’s best and brightest.

In the French tech world, all eyes are on the privately financed Station F, which is set to open this summer in Paris. Billed as the world’s biggest startup campus, the 34,000-square-meter space already has major tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Ubisoft signed on. The companies will develop their products, as well as host and mentor startup founders in incubator programs. One thousand individual startups are expected to set up shop at Station F.

Seeking global appeal

Silicon Valley has attracted tech talent from all over the world. Now France hopes to do the same for those beyond its borders. Initiatives like the “French Tech Ticket” and more recent “French Tech Visa” are designed to bring startup founders, employees and investors to the country through a combination of mentorships, grants and subsidized work spaces. The French Tech Visa fast-tracks a process for participants to obtain a renewable, four-year residence permit.

Not to be left out are the locals in France’s poorer, outer suburbs, the banlieue. The new administration is aiming for social diversity through inclusion initiatives that foster entrepreneurship, said Mahjoubi.

“We decided to create hubs in the private area[s] of France,” said Mahjoubi. “There might be entrepreneurs over there that believe that it’s not for them, because they couldn’t afford to not having a salary for a year of entrepreneurship … we created the condition so they could receive money from the state, to have a salary during these 12 months [to] push their project to the highest level they can.”

Unemployment at 9.5 percent

The encouragement of entrepreneurship is a novel sentiment in a country where traditional attitudes and strict labor laws have long dominated work culture. With a national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, venturing out on one’s own to start a business can seem too risky.

But with the success of French unicorns like ride-sharing service BlaBlaCar and network provider Sigfox, attitudes appear to be shifting; 68 percent of French people aged 18 to 25 aspire to run their own business one day, according to a 2015 Ernst & Young survey.

“I think the ecosystem, the government, have done a very good job to do some marketing about entrepreneurship and I think it’s very important because when we compare our situation to the U.S., in the U.S. there is a lot of storytelling, everyone is super enthusiast[ic] and it brings a momentum that is super beneficial,” said François Wyss, co-founder of French startup DataBerries.

Funding available

Wyss and his co-founders recently secured $16 million in their first round of funding for his digital marketing startup.

“There is a lot of funding now in France, so it’s great. We have the chance to have world-class engineers, which are far cheaper than in the U.S. So a lot of companies are developing their core product and R&D in France before exporting it overseas,” said Wyss.

“French tech is all about having roots in France and having a vision for the world,” said Mahjoubi. “The French tech startup scene is an international startup scene.”

Experts: Mexico Opposition Party Targeted by Spyware

Mexico’s scandal of high-tech spying against journalists and human rights defenders widened Thursday, with experts confirming that leading members of a main opposition party were also targeted by Israeli-made spyware sold exclusively to governments.

The conservative National Action Party, or PAN, had asked internet watchdog Citizen Lab to investigate suspicious messages after the University of Toronto-based cybersleuths exposed the scandal last week.

On Thursday, Citizen Lab released a research note saying it had determined that the cellphones of the party president, its chief spokesman and the party’s leader in the Senate were all sent text messages containing links to the same malware.

The spyware, known as Pegasus, is made by NSO Group, which says it sells only to government agencies for use against criminals and terrorists. It turns a cellphone into an eavesdropper with the ability to remotely activate its microphone and camera and access its data.

“This case makes it crystal clear that NSO has been used widely and recklessly across a swath of Mexican civil society and politics,” said John Scott-Railton at Citizen Lab. “Once again we see ‘government-exclusive’ spyware being used for seemingly political ends.”

Probe promised

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto last week dismissed allegations that his government was responsible and promised an investigation. Local media have reported that documents show the Mexican government bought rights to use the spy software.

The PAN is the party of former Mexican Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon. The report says its Senate leader, Roberto Gil Zuarth, received three messages in June 2016 with links designed to surreptitiously plant Pegasus on his cellphone.

“As cases continue to emerge, it is clear that this is not an isolated case of misuse, but a sustained operation that lasted for more than a year and a half,” Scott-Railton said.

Like other attempts against journalists and consumer and rights activists, the messages sought to entice the intended victim into clicking on an irresistible message. One message to Gil Zuarth was about a news article mentioning him. Another announced a death. The PAN president, Ricardo Anaya, received one message around the same time. About one month later, party spokesman Fernando Rodriguez Doval got a message.

“This is something an authoritarian regime would do,” Rodriguez Doval said. “It must be investigated thoroughly and those responsible must be punished.”

While the report reached no specific conclusions about who was responsible, it noted that anti-corruption legislation was being debated in Congress around the time the victims’ phones were targeted.

Government critics targeted

Citizen Lab said in a June 19 report that while it had no proof of government involvement in the sending of 76 text messages targeting 12 prominent journalists and rights activists in Mexico, the targets were all investigating or critical of the government. Some had uncovered corruption.

Anaya said at a news conference two days later that PAN politicians also had been targeted. Out of caution, he said, none had clicked on the links.

“What is clear is that they tried to upload spyware onto our phones, to spy on us,” Anaya said.

On Thursday, Anaya placed the blame squarely on the government.

Anaya said in a statement, “It is absolutely unacceptable for the government to spy on people, invading their privacy to this degree.” He added, “We are not going to rest until those responsible resign their posts, are put on trial and are jailed.”

The Centro Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez, a human rights group that has investigated a number of high-profile human rights cases, has said its staff members were targeted. Other targets included well-known journalists Carmen Aristegui and Carlos Loret de Mola.

In February, Citizen Lab and its Mexican partners published a report detailing how Mexican food scientists and anti-obesity campaigners who backed Mexico’s soda tax were also targeted with Pegasus.

Last year, the watchdog group exposed the use of Pegasus to spy on a prominent human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates.

Facebook Says Internet Drone Lands Successfully on Second Test

Facebook Inc. said Thursday that it had completed a second test of an unmanned aircraft designed to someday beam internet access to remote parts of the planet, and unlike in the first test, the drone did not crash.

Facebook plans to develop a fleet of drones powered by sunlight that will fly for months at a time, communicating with each other through lasers and extending internet connectivity to the ground below.

The company called the first test, in June 2016, a success after it flew above the Arizona desert for 1 hour, 36 minutes, three times longer than planned. It later said the drone had also crashed moments before landing and had suffered a damaged wing.

The second test occurred on May 22, Martin Luis Gomez, Facebook’s director of aeronautical platforms, said in a blog post. The aircraft flew for 1 hour, 46 minutes before landing near Yuma, Arizona, with only “a few minor, easily repairable dings,” he said.

Facebook engineers had added “spoilers” to the aircraft’s wings to increase drag and reduce lift during the landing approach, Gomez said.

Venezuela Prosecutor Charges Ex-national Guard Chief with Human Rights Violations

Venezuela’s renegade chief prosecutor charged the former head of the country’s national guard Thursday with systemically violating human rights during three months of anti-government protests that have left nearly 80 people dead.

Luisa Ortega Diaz’s office announced the charges against Antonio Benavides Torres a day after the nation’s Supreme Court declared it was barring her from leaving Venezuela and ordering her bank accounts frozen.

Ortega Diaz, a longtime loyalist of the socialist government who recently broke ranks with President Nicolas Maduro, said police and military officials are responsible for 23 protest deaths to date as well as 853 injuries.

“In a great number of these incidents, there is evidence of excessive use of force in repressing protests,” Venezuela’s Public Ministry said in a statement, citing the use of unauthorized firearms and torture of those apprehended.

Motions challenge Maduro

 

The charges are likely to further escalate tensions between Maduro and Ortega Diaz, who has become one the president’s most vocal critics. She has filed numerous motions to the government-packed Supreme Court challenging Maduro’s call for a special assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, all of which have been rejected. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is proceeding with a complaint filed against her by socialist party lawmaker Pedro Carreno.

Maduro announced he was replacing Benavides Torres last week and instead assigning him as government head of the capital district.

 

Opposition protests demanding new elections and decrying Venezuela’s triple-digit inflation, food shortages and worsening crime are continuing to rock the nation as Maduro pushes forward with his plan to draft a new constitution.

On a near daily basis, national guardsmen and police have launched tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators, some of whom have responded with rocks and firebombs. The United States, European Union, Canada and others have urged the government refrain from using force against protesters. But protester  deaths and injuries have steadily risen, nearly doubling the number of people killed during Venezuela’s last wave of political unrest in 2014.

‘Colectivos’ blamed

The figures released by Ortega Diaz’s office Thursday indicate police and military officers are responsible for about a quarter of the deaths.

Opposition leaders also blame armed pro-government groups known as “colectivos” for the violence, while Maduro’s administration insists criminal gangs contracted by right-wing political groups are responsible for the bloodshed.

Benavides Torres was one of seven Venezuelan officials sanctioned by then U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015 for allegedly violating human rights against protesters during the 2014 demonstrations that left 43 people dead.

Power of ombudsman expanded

 

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling broadening the powers of staunchly pro-government ombudsman Tarek William Saab, allowing him to carry out criminal investigations that are the exclusive prerogative of Ortega Diaz.

A defiant Ortega Diaz said she wouldn’t recognize the ruling, which she portrayed as a brazen attempt to eliminate her position as Venezuela’s top law enforcement official.

“These rulings are giving the power to investigate human rights abuses to people who possibly are violating those rights,” she said.

The ruling came on the same evening that authorities say police investigator Oscar Perez stole a police helicopter and flew it over the Supreme Court and Interior Ministry while firing at the buildings. Maduro characterized it as a “terrorist attack.”

Helicopter recovered

Witnesses said the helicopter had hanging from its side a large banner referring to article 350 of the country’s constitution, which empowers Venezuelans to disobey any regime that violates human rights.

There was relatively little damage to the buildings and no one was injured.

On his Instagram account, Perez, a police pilot and budding action movie actor, posted a video in which he read a manifesto calling for rebellion. He claimed to speak on behalf of a coalition of renegade members of the security forces, though there was no indication of a larger military involvement.

Authorities found Perez’s helicopter in the northern state of Vargas on Wednesday afternoon and a nationwide manhunt continued for him Thursday.

Mexican President to Meet With Trump at G-20

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will meet with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump next week at the G-20 summit in Germany, the Mexican foreign ministry said on Thursday via Twitter.

The election of Trump and his early days in office sent U.S.-Mexico relations to a new low due to his threats to slap tariffs on Mexican-made goods and a plan to build a wall on the southern U.S. border to keep out illegal immigrants.

The foreign ministry said the two leaders would review progress in various aspects of the bilateral relationship, and that more details would be published in due course.

In late January, a planned meeting between the presidents was canceled following a Twitter dispute over Trump’s pledge to make Mexico pay for the wall. The American president has since shied away from that demand.

Trump’s administration also moved toward talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), toning down earlier threats to pull out of the pact with Mexico and Canada.

This month, the U.S. and Mexican governments resolved a long-standing dispute over the sugar trade, while agricultural ministers from the three NAFTA countries met and said there were “relatively few” differences over farm trade to resolve in talks.

Pacific Alliance Explores Single Passport for Member Nations

The Pacific Alliance trade group will explore whether to create a single passport for its four member nations in a bid to encourage tourism and trade across the world, Colombia’s migration director said Thursday.

The alliance, which comprises Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru and was formed in April 2011, has already abolished transit visas for the countries’ more than 230 million inhabitants.

Alliance members are among the keenest proponents of free trade in the Americas and have backed Mexico after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement and tightened immigration controls.

“One of the instructions, the commitments you want to achieve in the development of this great Pacific Alliance, is the ease of migratory mobility,” Christian Kruger, head of Colombia’s migration agency, told reporters at the Pacific Alliance summit in Cali.

Such a move would require an improvement in cross-border information to maintain security and prevent crime, he said.

A single passport would allow Colombians, Chileans, Mexicans and Peruvians to travel without a visa to other countries that enter the trade block.

Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are expected to join as associate members during the summit in Colombia.

The integration agreement, which promotes the free movement of goods, services, capital and people, has bolstered the flow of people between the four countries in areas like tourism, Kruger said.

Malawi, UNICEF Launch Africa’s First Humanitarian Drone Testing Corridor

Malawi and the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) launched an air corridor Thursday to test the effectiveness of drones in humanitarian emergencies and other development uses, the first project of its kind in Africa.

Landlocked Malawi, which suffers periodic crop failures and is prone to floods, is frequently in need of food and other aid, and limited road access in many of its rural areas makes it difficult to get help to needy communities.

“Drone technology has many potential applications. … One that we have already tested in Malawi is to transport infant blood samples to laboratories for HIV testing,” UNICEF Malawi Resident Representative Johannes Wedenig said at the launch in Kasungu, 100 km (60 miles) from the capital Lilongwe.

The test corridor is centered at the Kasungu Aerodrome, with a 40-kilometer radius and focusing on three areas: generating aerial images of crisis situations, using drones to extend Wi-Fi or mobile phone signals across difficult terrain in emergencies, and delivering low-weight emergency supplies.

“The launch of the testing corridor is particularly important to support transportation and data collection where land transport infrastructure is either not feasible or difficult during emergencies,” Malawian Minister of Transport Jappie Mhango told Reuters.