TIME Religion

Pope Francis Gives Stern Talking to Vatican Bureaucracy

Pope Francis delivers his blessing at the end of an audience with Italian athletes in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican
Giampiero Sposito—Reuters Pope Francis delivers his blessing at the end of an audience with Italian athletes in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 19, 2014.

“Sometimes [officials of the Curia] feel themselves ‘lords of the manor’ – superior to everyone and everything”

Pope Francis had some blunt criticism for Vatican bureaucrats on Monday. In prepared remarks Monday, the Pope urged Roman Curia officials to remember their duty to serve in charity and love.

“Sometimes, [officials of the Curia] feel themselves ‘lords of the manor’ – superior to everyone and everything,” the Pope said, according to Vatican Radio.

READ MORE How Pope Francis Helped Broker Cuba Deal

“The Curia is called on to always improve itself and grow in communion, holiness and knowledge to fulfill its mission,” he added. “But even it, as any human body, can suffer from ailments, dysfunctions, illnesses.”

The AP reports that “few were smiling” during the Pope’s comments.

Read more from the Associated Press.

TIME Crime

Shootings by Police Voted Top Story of 2014 in AP Poll

Killings By Police March
John Minchillo—AP Demonstrators march in New York, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, during the Justice for All rally and march. In the past three weeks, grand juries have decided not to indict officers in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York and the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The decisions have unleashed demonstrations and questions about police conduct and whether local prosecutors are the best choice for investigating police.

Ebola came in second

The killing of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers was voted the top news story of 2014 in a survey of news directors and editors around the country.

Police killings, and the federal investigations and civil unrest they unleashed, came out on top from among the 85 votes cast with 22 first-place votes, in the Associated Press poll. Voters placed the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as second biggest, and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria third biggest story of the year.

The poll was conducted before the U.S. announced it would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.

These, in order, are the top ten stories of the year as determined by the AP poll.

1. Police Killings

2. Ebola Outbreak

3. Islamic State

4. U.S. Elections and the GOP Wave

5. Obamacare Ongoing Rollout

6. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

7. Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

8. Conflict in Ukraine

9. Gay Marriage Wave

10. Veterans Affairs Scandal

TIME Veterans

Rising VA Disability Payments Linked to Veteran Unemployment

Last US Military Convoy Departs Iraq
Mario Tama / Getty Images A U.S. soldier waves as the final American convoy pulls out of Iraq in 2011 at the end of the second Iraq war.

Stanford study suggests a seesaw relationship between the two

Unemployment persists among military veterans as a sharply growing number of them are receiving disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to a new study by a Stanford economist. The steep increase in such payments, Mark Duggan suggests, could be acting as a brake on their employment prospects.

Veterans receiving disability compensation from the VA rose from 8.9% in 2001 to 18% this year, Duggan’s study says. Even as the number of veterans shrank from 26.1 million in 2001 to 22 million this year, those receiving federal money for wounds linked to military service have climbed from 2.3 million to 3.9 million.

 

Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research

“The substantial rise in Disability Compensation enrollment in recent years suggests that this program may be affecting labor market outcomes for military veterans,” Duggan writes. He cites two possible reasons:

— It can reduce a veteran’s “propensity to work because—with the additional income—he may now prefer additional leisure to work.”

— Additional work may also “prevent a veteran from qualifying for a higher level of Disability Compensation benefits—and thus increase the effective tax rate on work.”

The jobless rate among post-9/11 vets was 7.2% in October, compared to the nation’s 5.8% rate—and a 4.5% rate among all veterans.

The study “is important because it shows how the good intentions of the disability system can sabotage the well-being of veterans,” says Sally Satel, a one-time VA psychiatrist who now works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. But the report, she adds, could boomerang: “Talking about reforming the veterans’ disability system is a third-rail topic because, on superficial glance, it appears as if reformers want to deny veterans help.”

But Satel, a reform advocate, denies that. “Reformers urge that assistance be given in the most constructive way possible,” she says. “This means that the VA should go all-out in terms of treatment and rehabilitation, to maximize entry into the workforce and minimize exit from it.”

Some vets believe the report misses the point. Repeated deployments and the lack of a formal, uniformed and organized enemy, ground down the Americans who fought the post-9/11 wars, says Alex Lemons, a Marine sergeant who pulled three tours in Iraq, “A number of my friends were blown into many pieces and they never quite reassembled them,” he says. “You might look at this person and think they look fine despite scars, but then you find out they can’t stand for more than an hour a day, they have shrapnel that works its way out of their dermis and have to pry it out, they are near deaf without hearing aids, or they can’t pick up things as a result of nerve damage in a hand. It means they will never be qualified for many jobs.”

Lemons says it’s good that troops are coming forward seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder, which has gone from the 10th most-common condition among vets on disability in 2000, to third in 2013. “In my infantry battalion the number of Marines who are on PTSD disability is not more than 35%,” he says, “even though I believe everyone who deployed with us has it.”

The average monthly disability payment grew 46%—from $747 to $1,094—between 2001 and 2013, Duggan reports. While that’s not much per veteran, the nation paid out a total of $54 billion in such benefits in 2013.

Congressional Budget Office

Not only are more veterans receiving disability compensation, Duggan’s report says, but they’re receiving more than earlier veterans did. That’s because the VA has ruled that the impact of their military service on their health is greater than for earlier generations of vets. Disability payments are pegged to a VA-determined rating, which is expressed in 10 percentage-point increments. Between 2001 and 2013, the number of vets deemed 10% disabled—generating an average monthly payment of $131 last year—dropped by 1%. Over the same period, the more than 800,000 vets rated 80% or more disabled—receiving an average monthly payment of $2,700—rose by 221%.

Military service also may have “become more demanding over time,” accounting for less veteran participating in the labor force, Duggan’s report says. “Consistent with this explanation,” he adds, “veterans have become more likely than non-veteran males to report that their health is poor or just fair rather than excellent, very good, or good.”

Elspeth Ritchie, a retired colonel who served as the Army’s top psychiatrist before retiring in 2010, believes the report slights what troops experienced in the nation’s post-9/11 wars. “It does not seem to factor in the high rate of physical injuries, traumatic brain injury and PTSD in the veterans from these conflicts,” she says.

Since turning its back on its veterans following the unpopular war in Vietnam, American society has sung the praises of its veterans, and has been footing the bills for those hurt to prove it. “Spending on veterans’ disability benefits has almost tripled since fiscal year 2000, from $20 billion in 2000 to $54 billion in 2013—an average annual increase of nearly 8%, after adjusting for inflation,” the Congressional Budget Office reported in August. “VA projects that such spending will total $60 billion in 2014 and $64 billion in 2015, a 19% increase from two years earlier.”

Duggan reports that a “key driver” in the growth of such benefits has been the VA’s decision to make veterans who served in southeast Asia during the Vietnam war eligible for benefits if they have Type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, or B-cell leukemia. The agency took the action when it decided to “presume” the ailments were linked to military service in the theater and possible exposure there to the defoliant Agent Orange.

Today’s veterans, the study says, are more likely than their fathers to seek and gain VA disability benefits. Nearly one in four vets since 1990 are being compensated, compared to one in seven veterans prior to 1990. “This higher rate of enrollment may be primarily driven by the VA’s approval of presumptive conditions for Gulf War veterans who served in the Southwest Asia theater from 1990 to the present (including Iraq and Afghanistan),” Duggan found.

 

Congressional Budget Office

He also reports that while veterans between 1980 and 1999 were more like to be employed than non-veterans, that has flipped since 2000. “This significant reduction in labor force participation among veterans,” he adds, “closely coincides with their increase in Disability Compensation enrollment during this same period.”

Duggan notes that a 2010 change in VA regulations no longer required veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD to document their exposure to wartime trauma such as firefights or IED blasts. The number of veterans being compensated for PTSD rose from 133,789 in 2000 to 648,992 last year. “The percentage of all veterans on the Disability Compensation program with a diagnosis of PTSD has increased by a factor of six during this period,” Duggan writes, “from 0.5% in 2000 to 3.0% in 2013.”

The jump doesn’t surprise William Treseder, who deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine sergeant. “Many post-9/11 vets can tell you stories about the inflation of VA claims,” he says. “We are often told to file for certain conditions—especially post-traumatic stress—whether or not we think it’s actually an issue. It’s the chicken-soup principle in action: can’t hurt; might help.”

Like Duggan, Treseder believes more study is needed examining the impact of disability payments on veterans. “This is much-needed research,” he says. “I’m glad to see someone out there looking into this.”

TIME Spain

Spanish King’s Sister to Stand Trial on Tax Fraud Charges

Charges against the princess were brought as part of an inquiry into her husband's business dealings

Cristina de Borbon, sister of Spain’s King Felipe VI, has been ordered to stand trial on charges of tax fraud, the Balearic Islands High Court said Monday.

The charges were brought as part of an investigation into the dealings of Borbon’s husband, Iñaki Urdangarin, who stands accused with a former business partner of embezzling millions of dollars in public funds. Urdangarin, an Olympic handball champion, allegedly siphoned $7.5 million from the Noos Institute, his non-profit sports foundation, into his personal bank accounts in 2007-8.

The judge on the case has now decided to put Princess Cristina on trial too for cooperating and embezzling $3.2 million of those funds. Cristina and her husband deny any wrongdoing.

Hearings could start as early as mid-2015, the first time a member of the Spanish royal family will face a criminal trial.

[El Pais]

TIME Iraq

The First Western Journalist to Interview ISIS Is Home With a Terrifying Message

What he found in Mosul doesn't bode well

Jürgen Todenhöfer, the first Western journalist to be granted access to territories controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), has returned with a warning: the terrorist group is “much stronger and much more dangerous” than its adversaries understand.

The veteran German writer and journalist is back in his home state after traveling through ISIS territories, just months after the extremist group began killing captive foreign workers and journalists. In Todenhöfer’s first interviews about the trip with German-language media, translated by the U.K. Independent, he presents ISIS as having achieved its namesake goal: an Islamic State — or rather, a collection of claimed lands hewed together by an audacious, baffling zealotry that will challenge efforts to beat the group.

READ MORE Kurdish Fighters Regain Territory from ISIS in Most Successful Offensive Yet

Todenhöfer, 74, a high-profile reporter and antiwar activist, traveled to ISIS-held Mosul, in northern Iraq, after seven months of negotiations with the group’s leaders.

In Mosul, Todenhöfer found an “almost ecstatic enthusiasm” for the jihadist group that is unlike anything he had seen “in any other war zone,” he tells the German press. Each day, Todenhöfer says, hundreds of new recruits arrive to pledge themselves to the group’s mission, or what he calls the “largest religious cleansing strategy that has ever been planned in human history.”

Beyond the challenge of beating ISIS’s psychological pull on its followers, the U.S. and its allies will also confront the problem that the group’s some 5,000 fighters in Mosul sleep in barracks all around the Iraqi city, such that attackers “would have to reduce the whole of Mosul to ruins” to rid it of ISIS, says Todenhöfer.

He adds: “With every bomb that is dropped and hits a civilian, the number of terrorists increases.”

[The Independent]

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Arrests Several Suspects for Deadly Peshawar School Attack

Mohsin Raza—Reuters Demonstrators in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Dec. 21, 2014, condemn the attack by Taliban gunmen on the Army Public School in Peshawar

Intelligence indicates plans of a new attack, says the Interior Minister

Pakistani police say they have arrested several people suspected of facilitating the attack on a school in the city of Peshawar last week, which left 148 people dead.

All seven assailants were reportedly killed in the attack, which was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban as a revenge for an army offensive in the Waziristan region, but officials believe the outfit is planning another hit, reports the BBC.

“We are receiving intelligence from across the country that the militants are getting ready for another savage and inhuman counterattack,” says Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

Pakistan lifted a moratorium on its use of death penalties following the attack in Peshawar, and has since executed six men.

[BBC]

TIME South Korea

South Korean Nuclear Operator Holds Cyberattack Drills After Hack

Kori nuclear power plant in Ulsan, South Korea
Kyodo/AP The dome-type Advanced Power Reactor 1400 reactors at the Kori nuclear power plant in Ulsan, South Korea, on Feb. 5, 2013

Hackers threaten people to "stay away" from three nuclear reactors unless they are closed by Christmas

South Korea’s sole nuclear operator will conduct a series of large-scale security drills at four of its power plants after threats of a cyberattack.

Hackers have posted a series of blueprints of plant equipment owned by Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP) since Dec. 15 and made a threat that unless three reactors were closed by Christmas, people should “stay away from them,” the BBC reports.

KHNP says that the leaked data does not undermine the safety of their reactors, since the information does not relate to core technologies, but they will hold drills testing their ability to withstand a cyberattack on Monday and Tuesday.

Authorities say that they’ve launched an investigation into the hack.

In a post on social media on Friday, the hacker used an account named “president of the antinuclear reactor group.” It is unknown if the attack has any connection to the hack on Sony Pictures last month.

[BBC]

TIME central african republic

Hundreds of Muslims Are Trapped in Enclaves in the Central African Republic

Those trapped "face a grim choice: leave and face possible attack from anti-balaka fighters, or stay and die from hunger and disease," reports HRW

Hundreds of Muslims are trapped in enclaves in atrocious conditions in the Central African Republic, fearing attacks if they leave and blocked from fleeing abroad by the interim government, reports Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Those trapped in some of the enclaves face a grim choice: leave and face possible attack from anti-balaka fighters, or stay and die from hunger and disease,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at HRW. “The government’s policy of no evacuations is absolutely indefensible.”

HRW also deplore U.N. peacekeepers for alleged complicity in hindering Muslims to seek safety. Camp leaders in the western Muslim enclaves of Yaloké, Carnot and Boda told researchers earlier this month that an estimated 1,750 people, many of them ethnic Peuhl herders, are desperate to flee.

Most of the Muslims in the west of the country escaped brutal attacks by Christian and animist anti-balaka militants between late 2013 and early 2014. More than 5,000 people were killed between December 2013 and September this year, the Associated Press reports.

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