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SOCHI STILL SCRAMBLING TO SELL OLYMPIC TICKETS

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 09:55 Published in National News

LONDON (AP) — What if they held an Olympics and nobody came?

The situation isn't that bleak, of course, for the Sochi Games. Yet, with less than three weeks to go until the opening ceremony, hundreds of thousands of tickets remain unsold, raising the prospect of empty seats and a lack of atmosphere at Russia's first Winter Olympics.

There are signs that many foreign fans are staying away, turned off by terrorist threats, expensive flights and hotels, long travel distances, a shortage of tourist attractions in the area, and the hassle of obtaining visas and spectator passes.

"Some people are scared it costs too much and other people are scared because of security," senior International Olympic Committee member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway told The Associated Press. "From my country, I know that several people and companies are not going for these two reasons. Of course, there will be Norwegians there but not as many as we are used to."

Sochi organizers announced last week that 70 percent of tickets have been sold for the games, which run from Feb. 7-23 and represent a symbol of pride and prestige for Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

So what about the remaining 30 percent?

"We are keeping a special quota for those who come for the games, so that they can indeed buy tickets for the competitions," organizing committee chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said.

Chernyshenko said about 213,000 spectators are expected at the games, with about 75 percent likely to be Russians.

"Tickets are being snapped up fast with the most popular events being hockey, biathlon, figure skating, freestyle and snowboard," the organizing committee said in a statement to the AP. "With 70 percent of tickets already sold and another ticketing office opening shortly, we are expecting strong last-minute ticket sales and do not envisage having empty seats."

Sochi officials have refused to divulge how many tickets in total were put up for sale, saying the figure would only be released after the games.

However, according to IOC marketing documents seen by the AP, Sochi had a total of 1.1 million tickets on offer. That would mean about 300,000 tickets remained available.

By comparison, 1.54 million tickets were available for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and 97 percent (1.49 million) were sold. For the 2012 Summer Games in London, organizers sold 97 percent (8.2 million) of their 8.5 million tickets.

Heiberg, who chairs the IOC marketing commission, said the Russians have cut down by 50 percent on the number of spectators originally planned for the mountain events for security reasons.

"That means there will be less people and probably less enthusiasm than we had, for instance, in Lillehammer," he said. "I hope the Russians will fill not only their indoor stadiums but there will be enough people in the stadiums for the Nordic events."

Heiberg organized the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, which stood out for the colorful atmosphere generated by passionate Norwegian fans.

Sochi's ticket sales began in February 2013, a year before the games. Tickets have been sold on Sochi's official website on a first-come, first-served basis. Box offices are now open in Moscow and Sochi.

The cheapest tickets go for 500 rubles ($15), the most expensive for 40,000 rubles ($1,200). More than half of all tickets cost less than 5,000 rubles ($150). The average monthly salary in Russia is 30,000 rubles ($890).

The one and only authorized ticket office in Sochi was busy on a recent afternoon, with three dozen people lining up at what once was a waiting room at the city's railway station. Many, however, complained that all the cheap tickets were already gone.

"Prices leave much to be desired, but what can you can do?" said Sochi resident Yana Ivolovskaya, who bought two tickets for bobsled for 2,000 rubles ($60). "We're not going to get another Olympics in Sochi so I thought I should go."

Fans outside Russia buy tickets from authorized dealers appointed by their national Olympic committees.

Attracting foreign visitors has been a challenge amid all the headlines about Russia's law banning gay "propaganda," human rights issues and — particularly — the risk of terrorism.

Back-to-back suicide bombings killed 34 people last month in Volgograd, about 400 miles (640 kilometers) from Sochi. On Sunday, an Islamic militant group in Russia's North Caucasus claimed responsibility for the bombings and posted a video threatening to strike the Sochi Games.

CoSport, the official ticket reseller in the United States and six other countries, said the Sochi Games generated "good demand" for tickets and packages.

"We experienced demand at expected levels," spokesman Michael Kontos said, without giving figures.

Flights to Sochi are expensive, and most international travelers have to go through Moscow, with direct flights to Sochi only available from Germany and Turkey.

Western travelers must navigate the time-consuming visa process and requirement to obtain a "spectator pass" along with their tickets. This requires providing passport details that allow authorities to screen all visitors.

"What we are hearing is that the bureaucratic complexity, with spectator passes and visa and so on, is what scares off fans, more than worries about security," Austrian Olympic Committee spokesman Wolfgang Eichler said.

Jan Serenander, managing director of Jet Set Sports in Norway, cited a lack of tourist attractions in the Black Sea resort.

"When Sochi was announced no one had even heard of the place," he said. "They had to get out their atlases."

Die-hard winter sports fans, however, will not be discouraged. Orange-clad speedskating fans from the Netherlands are always among the most visible spectators at any Winter Games.

"I expect it to be orange," Jeroen de Roever, manager of official Duch ticket seller ATPI, said of Sochi's speedskating venue. "We have been sold out for quite a while."

___

Associated Press writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Sochi, Eric Willemsen in Vienna, Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Mike Corder in The Hague and Nesha Starcevic in Frankfurt contributed to this report.

CHICAGO ARCHDIOCESE HID DECADES OF CHILD SEX ABUSE

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 09:40 Published in National News

CHICAGO (AP) -- After a 13-year-old boy reported in 1979 that a priest raped and threatened him at gunpoint to keep quiet, the Archdiocese of Chicago assured the boy's parents that, although the cleric avoided prosecution, he would receive treatment and have no further contact with minors.

But the Rev. William Cloutier, who already had been accused of molesting other children, was returned to ministry a year later and went on to abuse again before he resigned in 1993, two years after the boy's parents filed a lawsuit. Officials took no action against Cloutier over his earliest transgressions because he "sounded repentant," according to internal archdiocese documents released Tuesday that show how the archdiocese tried to contain a mounting scandal over child sexual abuse.

For decades, those at the highest levels of the nation's third-largest archdiocese moved accused priests from parish to parish while hiding the clerics' histories from the public. The documents, released through settlements between attorneys for the archdiocese and victims, describe how the late Cardinals John Cody and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin often approved the reassignments. The archdiocese removed some priests from ministry, but often years or decades after the clergy were known to have molested children.

While disturbing stories of clergy sexual abuse have wrenched the Roman Catholic Church across the globe, the newly released documents offer the broadest look yet into how one of its largest and most prominent American dioceses responded to the scandal.

The documents, posted online Tuesday, cover only 30 of the at least 65 clergy for whom the archdiocese says it has substantiated claims of child abuse. Vatican documents related to the 30 cases were not included, under the negotiated terms of the disclosure.

The records also didn't include the files of former priest Daniel McCormack, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to abusing five children and whose case prompted an apology from George and an internal investigation of how the archdiocese responds to abuse claims.

But the more than 6,000 pages include internal communications between church officials, disturbing testimony about specific abuses, meeting schedules where allegations were discussed, and letters from anguished parishioners. The names of victims, and details considered private under mental health laws were redacted.

Cardinal Francis George said in a letter distributed to parishes last week that the archdiocese agreed to turn over the records in an attempt to help the victims heal. `'I apologize to all those who have been harmed by these crimes and this scandal," George wrote.

Officials in the archdiocese said most of the abuse detailed in the files released Tuesday occurred before 1988, none after 1996, and that all these cases ultimately were reported to authorities.

But victims' lawyers argue many of the allegations surfaced after George assumed control of the archdiocese in 1997, and some of the documents relate to how the church handled the cases more recently.

"The issue is not when the abuse happened; the issue is what they did once it was reported," said Chicago attorney Marc Pearlman, who has represented about 200 victims of clergy abuse in the Chicago area.

When a young woman reported in 1970 that she'd been abused as a teen, for example, Cody assured the priest that the "whole matter has been forgotten" because "no good can come of trying to prove or disprove the allegations."

Accused priests often were quietly sent away for a time for treatment or training programs, the documents show. When the accused clerics returned, officials often assigned them to new parishes and asked other priests to monitor them around children.

In one 1989 letter to Bernardin, the vicar for priests worries about parishioners discovering the record of the Rev. Vincent E. McCaffrey, who was moved four times because of abuse allegations.

"Unfortunately, one of the key parishioners ... received an anonymous phone call which made reference by name to Vince and alleged misconduct on his part with young boys," wrote vicar for priests, the Rev. Raymond Goedert. "We all agreed that the best thing would be for Vince to move. We don't know if the anonymous caller will strike again."

When the archdiocese tried to force accused clergy into treatment or isolate them at church retreats, some of the priests refused, or ignored orders by church administrators to stay away from children.

Church officials worried about losing parishioners and "potential priests" over abuse scandals. "This question I believe is going to get stickier and stickier," Patrick O'Malley, then-vicar for priests, wrote in a 1992 letter.

Then, in 2002, a national scandal about dioceses' failures to stop abusers consumed the American church. U.S. bishops nationwide adopted a toughened disciplinary policy and pledged to remove all guilty priests from church jobs in their dioceses.

But for many victims, it was too little and too late.

"Where was the church for the victims of this sick, demented, twisted pedophile?" one man wrote in a 2002 letter to George about abuse at the hands of the Rev. Norbert Maday, who was imprisoned in Wisconsin after a 1994 conviction for molesting two boys. "Why wasn't the church looking out for us? We were children, for God's sake."

---

Associated Press reporters Jason Keyser, Don Babwin and Michael Tarm contributed.

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RUSSIA, IRAN CRITICIZE TEHRAN SNUB FOR SYRIA TALKS

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 09:38 Published in National News

GENEVA (AP) — Russia and Iran on Tuesday criticized the U.N. chief's decision to withdraw Tehran's invitation to join this week's peace conference on Syria, as diplomats said a new report on Syrian regime atrocities underscored the urgent need to try to end the country's brutal civil war.

The last-minute U.N. invitation for Iran to participate in the so-called Geneva conference threw the entire meeting into doubt, forcing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to rescind his offer late Monday under intense U.S. pressure after Syria's main Western-backed opposition group threatened to boycott.

After Ban withdrew the invitation, the opposition Syrian National Coalition confirmed that it would attend the talks, stressing the goal should be to establish a transitional government with full executive powers "in which killers and criminals do not participate."

That cleared the way for the conference to open Wednesday as planned in the Swiss resort city of Montreux, with high-ranking delegations from the United States, Russia and close to 40 other countries attending. Face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents — the first of the uprising — are to start Friday in Geneva.

Expectations for a breakthrough at the conference are low. The front lines of the war have been largely locked in place since March, and despite suffering enormous losses, neither the government nor the opposition appears desperate enough for a deal to budge from its entrenched position.

It's also unclear how the opposition coalition, a weak and fractured umbrella group with almost no sway over the most powerful rebel groups inside Syria, could enforce any agreement reached in Geneva.

The determination to hold the talks anyway is a reflection of the urgency felt by the international community to find a political resolution to end the civil war that activists say has killed more than 130,000 people and unleashed a humanitarian crisis.

For some of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees scattered around the region, there is little hope that the peace conference can deliver a solution to the conflict, and scant interest in a settlement with President Bashar Assad's government.

"We lost our faith in the international community. We don't care about the Geneva conference and whether it takes place or not," said Ibraheem Qaddah, a former rebel fighter now holed up in Jordan's sprawling Zaatari refugee camp.

"We have lost a lot of relatives and friends and family members in the fighting and we've lost Syria. We are not looking for reconciliation with Bashar Assad," said Qaddah, whose left arm was amputated after he was severely wounded in the war.

In the latest report of atrocities, three prominent international war-crimes experts said they had received tens of thousands photographs documenting what they called the systematic killing of some 11,000 detainees by Syrian authorities. The images, which were smuggled out by a defector from Syria's military police, showed victims' bodies with signs of torture and maltreatment.

David Crane, one of the three experts who examined the newly revealed images of slain detainees, told The Associated Press that the cache provides strong evidence for charging Assad and others for crimes against humanity — "but what happens next will be a political and diplomatic decision."

"These photographs, if they are real, they reconfirm what we already are thinking and so we hope that the talks in Montreux and further on will produce results," said European Union President Herman Van Rompuy. "We don't need more evidence. If there is other evidence, all the better, but we don't need more evidence on the humanitarian tragedy that is happening there."

Assad's family has ruled since 1970, and Iran is Assad's strongest regional ally. The Islamic Republic has supplied the Syrian government with advisers, money and weapons since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011. Iran's allies, most notably the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, have also gone to Syria to help bolster Assad's forces.

Iran's role has infuriated Syria's opposition forces, which accuse Tehran of in essence invading their country.

The controversy over Iran's participation in the talks highlighted the fundamental differences over Syria between the United States and Russia, which has shielded Assad's regime from U.N. sanctions and continued to supply it with weapons throughout the civil war.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Ban's decision to rescind Iran's invitation was a mistake, but that the Kremlin would try to make the Geneva negotiations work.

"There is no catastrophe, we will push for a dialogue between the Syrian parties without any preconditions," Lavrov told reporters Tuesday.

At the same time, Russia's top diplomat took a jab at Ban, saying his decision on Iran "hasn't helped strengthen the U.N. authority," and that recalling the offer looked "unseemly."

Lavrov reaffirmed Russia's stance that the presence of Iran was essential for the success of the talks, saying Tehran's absence "isn't going to help strengthen the unity of the world's Muslims."

Iran's Foreign Ministry also sharply criticized Ban's diplomatic about-face and called on him to explain the "real reasons" for withdrawing the invite.

"From our point of view, the withdrawal is deplorable," ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, adding that the U.N. chief must have done so under immense pressure.

Syria's civil war has unleashed sectarian hatreds that have rippled across the wider region. It also has developed into a proxy war between Iran, the region's Shiite Muslim power, and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni heavy weight.

In the latest evidence that the unrest is spilling over Syria's borders, a car bombing in the Lebanese capital's southern suburbs early Tuesday. The explosion struck a Shiite area that is a bastion of support for Hezbollah, killing at least two people.

Lebanon is deeply divided by the war in Syria, and Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites have lined up behind their brethren in Syria on opposing sides of the war.

The last-minute flap over Iran's participation set a chaotic tone for the run-up to the conference.

In another bizarre twist, Syrian state TV said the government delegation stopped in Athens but couldn't leave because Greek authorities weren't allowing them to refuel the plane. It said the delegation, led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, would be delayed several hours and could miss meetings.

Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Constantinos Koutras said the delay was caused by a procedural issue, and that the plane had been cleared to depart.

___

Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Omar Akour in Zaatari Camp, Jordan, Elena Becatoros in Athens, and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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