WASHINGTON - A White House spokesman said the Obama administration is working to "strike the right balance between expanding coverage of preventive services and respecting religious beliefs" as it decides on a religious exemption to the mandate that all U.S. health plans cover contraceptives and sterilizations by Jan. 1, 2013.

"This decision has not yet been made," said Jay Carney, press secretary, in response to a question at the Nov. 29 White House press briefing.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, announced an interim final rule Aug. 1 that would require all health plans to cover contraceptives — including some that can cause abortions — and sterilizations free of charge.

On World AIDS Day, Vatican renews call for greater access to therapy


VATICAN CITY - The deaths each year of more than a million people from AIDS, the suffering of their families and the new infections of hundreds of thousands of infants are unacceptable when the medicines needed to prevent them exist, a Vatican official said.

Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, said World AIDS Day must be a time "to promote universal access to therapies for those who are infected, the prevention of transmission from mother to child, and education" in responsible sexuality.

Audits of six Irish dioceses show better handling of clergy abuse cases


DUBLIN - Audits of six Irish Catholic dioceses reveal "a marked improvement" in how the church is handling clerical abuse allegations.

However, the reviews, carried out by the independent National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church and released Nov. 30, also show that, in the past, too much emphasis was put on the rights of accused priests and protecting the reputation of the church. Each review found evidence that insufficient attention was paid to the suffering of victims and the long-term consequences of abuse.

Vatican says seat-belt complaint drew papal smile


VATICAN CITY - The Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI greeted with a smile the news that a German citizen had filed a complaint against him for not wearing a seat belt in his popemobile.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said Nov. 30 that the complaint was not being taken seriously at the Vatican.

"It continues to provoke curiosity and smiles of amusements, beginning with the Pope himself," Father Lombardi said.

D&P pushing for sustainable, small-scale farming


The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace believes Canadians may be eating the planet to death, so they’re going to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to nudge the world into a whole new food system.

Next June the United Nations Development Program will host Rio+20, a conference aimed at evaluating progress since the landmark Rio Earth Summit of 1992. Development and Peace is one of several Catholic organizations planning on attending.

“For us, responsible care of the planet is part of our campaign. It’s part of our five-year theme. We see it as a priority issue,” said Development and Peace program officer Mary Durran.

Violence mars Congo's election


KINSHASA, Congo - Catholic officials called for calm after a tense day of polling in which violent incidents claimed the lives of nearly a dozen people during Congo's presidential and legislative elections.

"The electoral campaign that took place in a tense atmosphere has ended with a funereal note," the Congolese bishops' conference said in a Nov. 29 statement that deplored deaths in a polling station in the southeastern city of Lubumbashi. Armed men in civilian clothes, reportedly members of a local Katanga separatist movement, attacked the polling station, killing two police officers and one female voter. In the same area, police also opened fire and killed seven or eight men who attacked a convoy carrying electoral materials.

Anglican archbishop’s claim of rape has no substance, investigation finds


ADELAIDE, AUSTRLIA - A prominent Church-appointed lawyer who investigated an Anglican archbishop’s claims of rape against a Catholic priest has found there is no substance to the allegations.

The primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, Archbishop John Hepworth, claimed in September that a still-living Catholic priest had raped him more than 40 years ago when Hepworth was a young Catholic priest. He also claimed he had been a victim of two other priests who have since died.

Traditionalist head says Vatican doctrinal statement needs changes


VATICAN CITY - The head of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X said a "doctrinal preamble" presented by the Vatican needs changes before it can be accepted as the basis for the group's reconciliation.

The statement by Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the society, appeared to hold out hope for further discussions with the Vatican, but it was unclear whether the Vatican would be willing to revisit the text.

"It is true that this doctrinal preamble cannot receive our endorsement, although leeway has been allowed for a 'legitimate discussion' about certain points of the (Second Vatican) Council. What is the extent of this leeway?" Bishop Fellay said in an interview posted on the society's website Nov. 29.

Pope urges agreement on climate change ahead of Durban meeting


VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI urged international leaders to reach a credible agreement on climate change, keeping in mind the needs of the poor and of future generations.

The Pope made the remarks at his noon blessing at the Vatican Nov. 27, the day before officials from 194 countries were to begin meeting in Durban, South Africa, to discuss the next steps in reducing greenhouse gases and stopping global temperatures from rising.

"I hope that all members of the international community can agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon, keeping in mind the needs of the poorest populations and of future generations," the Pope said.

Death penalty opponents praise Oregon governor for declaring moratorium


PORTLAND, Ore. - Catholic and other opponents of the death penalty praised Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber for placing a moratorium on the use of the death penalty for the rest of his term.

"Those of us who respect the dignity of human life from conception to natural death applaud this decision," said Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny.

"This is what we have been praying for and asking for," said Ron Steiner, a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem and an organizer for Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

U.S. priest serving at doctrinal congregation is new nuncio to Ireland


VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI has named U.S. Msgr. Charles J. Brown, a longtime official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the new apostolic nuncio to Ireland.With the appointment, he was named archbishop of the titular see of Aquileia.

The appointment, announced by the Vatican Nov. 26, comes at a delicate moment in Vatican-Irish relations. In July, the Vatican recalled its previous nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, after Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny and others sharply criticized the Vatican's handling of clerical abuse.