Putin ‘fake’ news ban; oligarch’s yacht detained


Editor’s note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Friday, March 4. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Saturday, March 5, as Russia’s invasion continues.

The Russian advance on Kyiv remained largely stalled on Friday while a fire at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant was extinguished following a Kremlin attack that drew worldwide condemnation.

Other Russian offensives were pushing ahead. An armed force in southern Ukraine made significant gains in an attempt to cut off access to the sea.

The attack on the Zaporizhzhia power plant facility caused a fire and widespread fears of a disaster similar to the 1986 Chernobyl accident, which occurred about 65 miles north of the Ukrainian capital. Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine tweeted, “If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl!”

There were no indications of radiation leaking, according to a senior U.S. Defense Department official. Nuclear power plants are not designed to withstand military attacks, underscoring the recklessness of the assault, added the official, who discussed intelligence reports on condition of anonymity.

The Russians apparently captured the plant with an eye toward controlling the Ukrainian population, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said. Operating the plant would allow them to deliver power, or to withhold it to punish Ukrainians.  

At an emergency Security Council meeting after the attack, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya accused Russia of committing “an act of nuclear terrorism.”

He told the council his Russian counterpart was lying over a claim that a “Ukrainian sabotage group” was responsible for setting fire to a training facility at the plant. He said several buildings were damaged and one part of the facility was experiencing an outage.

Meanwhile, the Russian advance on the capital of Kyiv remained largely stalled about 15 miles from the city center, the official said. Ukrainian forces have hindered its progress by blowing up a key bridge and attacking vehicles in the convoy that stretches for 40 miles. Though bogged down, the Russians continue to shell Ukrainian cities, striking residential areas and civilian infrastructure, the official said.

— Tom Vanden Brook, Ryan Miller and Christal Hayes 

Latest developments:

►Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will talk to U.S. senators on a video conference call Saturday morning, according to a person familiar with the invitation from the Ukrainian embassy.

► A Russian major general was killed in action fighting in Ukraine, a blow to the Kremlin and a rare occurrence for such a senior military official. Maj. Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky, the commanding general of the Russian 7th Airborne Division, was killed earlier this week. The death was a rarity in modern times. Since the end of the Vietnam War, only one U.S. general has died in a combat zone. Maj. Gen. Harold Greene died in Afghanistan in 2015. 

► Ukraine’s military has begun enlisting civilian drone pilots to help with surveillance in the effort to repel Russia’s invasion. Armed forces leaders have asked enthusiasts to donate aircraft and, if they are experienced flyers, to volunteer as pilots. 

►NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russian forces had used cluster bombs and that the organization had “seen reports of the use of other types of weapons which would be in violation of international law,” calling it “inhumane.” 

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Facebook the country’s navy intentionally sank its flagship frigate, Hetman Sagaidachny, which was under repair, to prevent Russian capture.

►Talks on Thursday between Russia and Ukraine yielded a tentative agreement to set up safe corridors to evacuate citizens and deliver humanitarian aid.

►The Pentagon said it established a direct communication line Tuesday with the Russian ministry of defense “for the purpose of preventing miscalculation, military incidents, and escalation.”

Ukraine-born film star Mila Kunis and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, announced Friday they are launching a GoFundMe account to provide aid and shelter for the war-ravaged nation, and will match up to $3 million in contributions. According to Global News, Kunis said she takes pride in being an American, “but today I have never been more proud to be a Ukranian.”

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‘BOMBS, BOMBS, BOMBS’: Ukrainian refugees describe harrowing journey to Poland

WHAT IS AN ARMISTICE? Here’s what you need to know during talks between Russia and Ukraine

The Russian military will observe a ceasefire in two areas of Ukraine starting Saturday to allow civilians to evacuate, Russian state media reported, but there was no immediate confirmation from Ukraine. It would be the first breakthrough in allowing civilians to escape the war.

The Russian Defense Ministry statement said it has agreed on evacuation routes with Ukrainian forces to allow civilians to leave the strategic port of Mariupol in the southeast and the eastern town of Volnovakha “from 10 a.m. Moscow time.” It was not immediately clear from the vaguely worded statement how long the routes would remain open.

The head of Ukraine’s security council, Oleksiy Danilov, had called on Russia to create humanitarian corridors to allow children, women and the elderly to escape the fighting, calling such corridors “question No. 1.”

— Associated Press

A billionaire’s superyacht was detained Friday by Italian authorities in furtherance of European Union sanctions levied against oligarchs stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

According to the Bloomberg, a 215-foot vessel named “Lady M,” owned by Alexei Mordashov, was docked in Imperia, a Ligurian Sea port near the French border.

Mordashov is among six Russians who were targeted for sanctions on Monday by the European Union. He is the primary shareholder and chairman of Severstal, a Russian company, with holdings in television, energy and mining, and was recently listed by Forbes as the second-wealthiest person in Russia. Earlier this week, he told the Russian news agency, TASS, he did not understand why he’s been targeted, claiming he has “absolutely nothing to do with the emergence of the current geopolitical tension.” 

— Dennis Wagner

Pence: No room in GOP for ‘Putin apologists’

Former Vice President Mike Pence told Republicans “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin” during an event with the party’s top donors.

Pence directed his comments toward members of the GOP who have failed to take Russian President Vladimir Putin to task for his brutal assault on Ukraine. Pence urged the party to move on from the 2020 presidential election.

“Where would Russian tanks be today if NATO had not expanded the borders of freedom? There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin,” Pence said. “There is only room for champions of freedom.”

— Chelsey Cox

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a rousing speech on video to crowds of demonstrators Friday night in major European cities.

Zelenskyy urged listeners to rally behind Ukraine in its resistance against Russian invaders, telling them, “Don’t turn a blind eye to this… If we fall, you fall. And if we win — and I’m sure we will win — this will be a victory for the whole democratic world.”

The video was shown in Paris, Frankfurt and Lyon, among other cities. In Prague, the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic, footage posted on social media showed throngs of pro-Ukraine demonstrators filling several blocks, cheering as Zelenskyy spoke.

— Dennis Wagner

Sky News journalists fired on by Russian forces

A British news team in Kyiv came under fire this week from what they reported was a Russian “death squad” as they attempted to cover the war in Ukraine’s capital.  

Sky News chief correspondent Stuart Ramsey was wounded during the ambush and a camera operator took two bullets to his body armor despite repeatedly identifying themselves as media.

A harrowing video of the incident shows the five-person crew motoring along a deserted, war-torn street when their vehicle is disabled by an explosion. Gunfire erupts and the windshield is shattered as they repeatedly cry out, “Press!” 

“Somehow, we’ve got to get out of there, but the bullets keep coming,” Ramsey says on the video. Shots continue for nearly three minutes before the journalists manage to escape down an embankment and into a nearby warehouse. Sky News’ website does not identify the date of the incident or the severity of Ramsey’s wound but says team members have returned safely to the United Kingdom.

— Dennis Wagner

Vice President Kamala Harris is heading to Poland and Romania to demonstrate NATO strength and unity and show U.S. support for the alliance’s eastern flank in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Harris will travel next Wednesday through Friday to Warsaw and Bucharest for meetings with the leaders of Poland and Romania. The leaders are expected to discuss continuing support for the people of Ukraine through security, economic and humanitarian assistance and the decision to impose severe economic consequences on Russia and those complicit in the invasion, the vice president’s office said.

“The vice president’s meetings will also focus on how the United States can further support Ukraine’s neighbors as they welcome and care for refugees fleeing violence,” Harris’ spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said.

— Michael Collins

The White House said Friday it was weighing a ban on Russian oil imports amid growing bipartisan calls for President Joe Biden to sanction Russia’s energy sector as Vladimir Putin escalates fighting in Ukraine.

“We are looking at options we could take right now to cut U.S. consumption of Russian energy,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “But we are very focused on minimizing the impact of families. If you reduce supply in the global marketplace, you are going to rise raise gas prices.”

By leaving open a ban on Russian oil imports, the White House softened its stance from Thursday when Psaki rejected the idea for being against the “strategic interest” of the U.S.

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on Thursday introduced the Ban Russian Energy Imports Act, which would prohibit the importation of Russian crude oil, petroleum, liquefied natural as and coal from Russia. The legislation has 16 additional Senate co-sponsors spanning both parties.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she also supports the bill. “I’m all for that. Ban it,” the speaker said Thursday.

In 2021, the U.S. imported an average of 209,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Russia, according to the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, accounting for 3% of all U.S. crude oil imports and 1 percent of the total crude oil produced by American refineries.

— Joey Garrison

White House press secretary Jen Psaki categorically rejected an idea posed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham that implied someone in Russia should assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“No, we are not advocating for killing the leader of a foreign country or a regime change,” Psaki said during a press briefing. “That is not the policy of the United States.”

In his tweet, Graham called for someone to “take this guy out,” in reference to Putin and said it would be a “great service” to Russia and the world at large. 

“That is not the position of the United States government and certainly not a statement you’d hear come from the mouth of anybody working in this administration,” Psaki told reporters.

— Chelsey Cox

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a bill introducing a prison sentence of up to 15 years for spreading information that goes against the Russian government’s position on the war in Ukraine.

The bill criminalizing the intentional spreading of what Russia deems to be “fake” reports about the war was quickly rubber-stamped by both houses of the Kremlin-controlled parliament earlier Friday.

The new law led to a a slew of prominent outlets announcing the suspension of the work of its journalists in the country, including CNN, Bloomberg News, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the BBC.

“The legislation appears to criminalize the process of independent journalism,” Tim Davis, BBC’s publications director said. “It leaves us no other option than to temporarily suspect the work of all BBC News journalists and their support staff within the Russian Federation while we assess the full implications of this unwelcome development.” 

Russian authorities have repeatedly decried reports of Russian military setbacks or civilian deaths in Ukraine as “fake” reports. State media outlets refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” rather than a “war” or “invasion.”

The law includes sentences of up to three years or fines for spreading what authorities deem to be false news about the military, but the maximum punishment rises to 15 years for cases deemed to have led to “severe consequences.” 

Russia’s media regulator made back-to-back announcements Friday that it was blocking access to both Facebook and Twitter across the country. 

The news came amid a crackdown on media sources in Russia as the country passed a law allowing for 15-year prison sentences for intentionally spreading “fake” information about military action.

Russian communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, said it cut access to Facebook over its alleged “discrimination” of the Russian media and state information resources. It said the restrictions introduced by Facebook owner Meta on the RT and other state-controlled media violate Russian law.

The agency followed up with cutting access to Twitter to be in line with the Russian Prosecutor General’s office decision. The watchdog has previously accused Twitter of failing to delete the content banned by the Russian authorities and slowed down access to it.

“We will continue to do everything we can to restore our services so they remain available to people to safely and securely express themselves and organize for action,” said Nick Clegg, president for global affairs for Facebook’s parent company Meta.

Clegg said Monday the company wasn’t pulling its platforms from Russia on its own accord because Russian people were using them to protest the war. Clegg said Russia had been “throttling” the platform, though, to prevent protests.

More than 1.2 million refugees have fled from Ukraine since the conflict began, the United Nations’ refugee agency said Friday.

Thursday, more than 165,000 people left the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Most leaving are women, children and older people , said spokesperson Shabia Mantoo, and the majority are fleeing to Poland, though others have gone to Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania. Some have also fled to Russia and Belarus.

However, an increasing number of reports indicate people of color fleeing Ukraine are facing discrimination at the border. The crisis highlights a double standard in the way nations treat refugees based on country of origin, race, religion and more, academics and refugees say. Many of the same European nations that turned away refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia in the past are now largely welcoming refugees from Ukraine.

— Ryan Miller and Grace Hauck

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a defiant and emotional speech, condemned NATO over its refusal to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine and said the move would only embolden Russia. 

“All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you, because of your weakness, because of your lack of unity,” he said in a nighttime address. “The alliance has given the green light to the bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages by refusing to create a no-fly zone.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday the military organization would not implement a no-fly zone or place troops on the ground in Ukraine over fears it could provoke widespread war throughout Europe with nuclear-armed Russia. 

“Allies agree that we should not have NATO planes operating over Ukrainian airspace or NATO troops on Ukrainian territory,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels after chairing a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, describing it as a “painful decision.”

Stoltenberg said bringing NATO troops or planes to Ukraine would only further escalate the conflict and bring about more destruction. “If we did that, we’d end up with something that that could end in a full fledged war in Europe involving many more countries and causing much more human suffering,” he added.

A three-person expert panel will monitor potential human rights violations in Ukraine after an overwhelming vote from the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.

The U.N.’s top human rights body voted 32-2, with 13 abstentions, to create the international panel. Only Russia and Eritrea opposed the resolution, with China abstaining.

In a tweet, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the creation of the panel, saying, “Russian war criminals will be held accountable.” 

International law experts have raised concerns about war crimes, including the targeting of civilians, and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which is separate from the U.N., said earlier this week he was also opening an investigation.

The office of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he will seek an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting after Russian troops in Ukraine attacked a nuclear power plant and sparked a fire.

Johnson’s office says he spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the early hours of the morning. He says Britain will raise the issue immediately with Russia and close partners. 

“The Prime Minister said the reckless actions of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin could now directly threaten the safety of all of Europe,” Johnson’s office said in a statement. “He said (the United Kingdom) would do everything it could to ensure the situation did not deteriorate further.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he also spoke with Zelenskyy about the attacks on the power plant. 

“These unacceptable attacks by Russia must cease immediately,” he said on Twitter.

China also said it is “seriously concerned about the safety and security” of nuclear facilities in Ukraine.

The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday announced temporary protected status (TPS) for Ukrainians living in the United States, which will shield them from deportation for the next 18 months, as Ukraine battles ongoing attacks from Russia.

“Russia’s premeditated and unprovoked attack on Ukraine has resulted in an ongoing war, senseless violence, and Ukrainians forced to seek refuge in other countries,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “In these extraordinary times, we will continue to offer our support and protection to Ukrainian nationals in the United States.”

Individuals must have continuously lived in the U.S. since March 1 to be eligible for TPS, DHS said. That would apply to approximately 30,000 Ukrainian nationals. Those who attempt to travel to the U.S. after March 1 do not qualify for TPS. 

— Rebecca Morin

Contributing: The Associated Press

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Man detained for 9 days in China for sending meme deemed ‘insulting’ to police

The man, identified only by his surname Li, allegedly sent the meme on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, in a group exchange complaining about the local Covid-19 prevention and control measures late last month, according to authorities and state media.

Police in Qingtongxia city, in Ningxia region, posted a screenshot of Li’s text exchange on Chinese social media, but later removed the post.

State-run outlet The Paper published further details of the incident that has provoked consternation in China, with a related hashtag garnering 170 million views. Many protested Li’s punishment, arguing that use of an internet joke was hardly grounds for being detained by police.

According to The Paper, Li sent a meme showing a dog in a police hat, holding a police badge and pointing at the camera. It’s a common image that has been used widely online before, with different variations sometimes including a cat or cartoon character in the police hat.

On Saturday evening, local police received a tip from a member of the public, alleging that Li had sent an image “insulting the image of police,” according to The Paper.

China insists its zero-Covid strategy is correct. Challenging it can be dangerous

The police launched an investigation into the chat group, which had more than 330 members, according to The Paper. After finding that Li was “dissatisfied with the community prevention measures,” police summoned Li to the station, where he was questioned and eventually “confessed to the illegal fact of insulting the police.”

Police said his actions had constituted the offense of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and gave him nine days’ detention as punishment.

The Paper praised local authorities’ efforts in containing the virus. The police are “on the front line of epidemic prevention and control to build a safety barrier for people’s lives and health,” said the article.

China grows more isolated as Asia Pacific neighbors start living with Covid-19

“However, there are some people dissatisfied with the epidemic prevention measures, and even openly insulting the police,” the article added. “For such illegal acts, Qingtongxia Police Department always insists on ‘zero tolerance’ policy and resolutely punishes them according to the law to defend the authority of law enforcement and legal dignity of the police.”

China has some of the world’s strictest Covid-19 measures, including travel restrictions, snap lockdowns and mass testing. This is in contrast to other countries in Asia, which are learning to live with the virus after rolling out mass vaccinations.

These measures, though broadly popular inside of China, have also prompted rare signs of public resistance in recent weeks as virus case numbers increase.

Two residents were detained in October for trying to climb over the fences of their locked-down gated community. And on social media, some residents have begun complaining about the toll of being locked down for extended periods of time, and the damage it has caused to local economies.

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New Hope woman was visited by the FBI, detained after Trump rally

JD Mullane
| Bucks County Courier Times


Dana Kurtbek went to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6  to hear ex-President Trump, and through anonymous tips and a case of mistaken identity said she was targeted by the feds as among the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol.

At airports, she said she has been hassled by TSA, detained by gun-carrying agents of U.S. Homeland Security, and questioned on her doorstep in New Hope by FBI agents. Her daughter, who didn’t attend the Jan. 6 rally, has also been detained and questioned as she has traveled through airports.

Kurtbek, 54, a self-employed graphic designer, said the feds allege that facial recognition software tagged her in the Capitol.

“They said they had a picture of me inside. It is absolutely false. I was nowhere near that building,” she said.

The feds have not accounted to this news organization for the evidence they allege show Kurtbek among the mob.

I asked the FBI and Homeland Security to confirm her version of the events, and for comment. Homeland Security never got back. An FBI spokeswoman said the agency will neither confirm nor deny Kurtbek’s story.

All we need is the picture. Send it anytime.  

So here’s Kurtbek’s version, as she told it to me.

She’s not a MAGA hat owner and doesn’t own any Trump gear. She said she has mixed emotions about the former president. He’s crass. But along with 74 million Americans, she voted for Trump on Nov. 6 because she liked his economic policies and his “America First” agenda.

“I don’t believe everything has been investigated thoroughly when it comes to the election,” she said.

Which is why she and her boyfriend decided to go to hear the speeches.

“Especially the president. I wanted to hear for myself what he had to say. No offense, but I don’t trust the media when it comes to Trump,” she said.

She got to D.C. early. She parked in Georgetown and walked to the Ellipse, at the Washington Monument. President Trump spoke about 11 a.m.

“At the end, he said we were going to walk to the Capitol and make sure (Vice President) Mike Pence does his job,” she said, referring to that day’s counting of state electoral votes, as required by the U.S. Constitution.

But it was freezing and overcast and windy in Washington.

“There were supposed to be speeches at the Capitol, but they were canceled. We had already been there about five hours, and it was really cold,” she said.

They decided to leave. They walked back to the car. They learned about the Capitol siege from phone alerts.  

“They said there were riots at the Capitol. We couldn’t believe it,” she said.

She condemned it.

“These were idiots. Just look at the pictures of them,” she said.

Back home in Bucks County, she planned for a short trip to Cancun, departing Jan. 16, where she would meet her daughter. She arrived at Philadelphia International Airport, and went to the American Airlines counter.

“I couldn’t check in, which was weird,” she said.

She’s an experienced air traveler, and has never been delayed at an airport for any reason, she said.

“The American Airlines woman is looking at her screen and said, ‘I’m sorry, I need to make a call. Take a seat. This could take a while,’” she said.

About 40 minutes later, she was informed that TSA wanted a full background check on her. No reason was given. She was not overly concerned.

“I thought it was random bad luck and they picked me,” she said.

But something wasn’t right.

“There must have been 20 agents all around me, watching me,” she said. “I asked if this was a training exercise.”

The agents were aggressive.

“There was a full pat-down,” she said. “The woman agent got to know me well, that’s all I’ll say.”

She continued on her trip. It didn’t occur to her that her attendance at the Trump rally had anything to do with the delay. That changed as she tried to leave Cancun. Neither she nor her daughter could check in at the airport. Security flagged both.

“My daughter said, ‘Oh, mom, this is because you went to that rally.’ I said that’s nonsense,” she said.

After a brief interview, they were allowed to return to Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey.

“That’s when all hell broke loose for us,” she said.

Airport officials wouldn’t stamp their passports. They were escorted to a back room.

“This wasn’t TSA anymore, it was Homeland Security. The police were there. They took both of us to a sealed-off room,” she said.

Mother and daughter were questioned in separate offices.

“The one officer said, do you know why you’re here? I said I had no idea. He said you have been identified by facial recognition software as being a participant in the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol, Jan. 6, and you were in the Capitol during the attack,” she said.

Stunned, she told the man, “You must have the worst software on the planet, because I was nowhere near the Capitol, and my daughter wasn’t even there.”

She wasn’t shown the picture they alleged to have of her.

“But then I didn’t ask to see it,” she said.

She was nervous.

“These were very serious people. They had guns,” she said.

She said the agent informed her that her daughter was questioned because they were “traveling together.”  

An hour and a half later, they were released. The agent seemed apologetic for the inconvenience, she said. There were no charges. 

She was handed a paper from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (which operates under the Dept. of Homeland Security) explaining why she “may have” been detained for “travel screening,” which includes, “You have a name that matches a person of interest in one of the government’s enforcement databases.”

Afterward, she vented on social media. On Friday Jan. 29th, about 4:30 p.m., two FBI agents showed up at her house in New Hope, again saying facial recognition software placed her in the Capitol during the attack.

“So now I’m getting better at this stuff,” she said. “I was seriously annoyed. I asked for a business card. Neither said they had any.”

They flashed their badges, she said. One did the talking, the other didn’t speak.

“They wouldn’t come into the house. They wouldn’t let me record the conversation, either,” she said.

She asked to see the pic that allegedly showed her among the mob within the Capitol. They did.

“I laughed. I said are you kidding? Other than both of us being middle-aged white women, we look nothing alike. She has brown eyes, mine are green. I have brown hair, she has blonde.”

She said the FBI agent doing the talking agreed that the woman in the picture looked nothing like her. Then he asked if she owned guns.  

“He said, well, you shouldn’t have any more problems. I said after what I’ve been through, I doubt it. I asked them: Why are you here? Why aren’t you at the houses of the people who actually were in the Capitol? Should the people who gave you this false tip about me face repercussions?”

She said the agent told her they didn’t know the identity of the tipsters, both were anonymous.

Since then her daughter, who frequently flies on business, has been detained and questioned four times by authorities at airports around the country, she said.

“I’ve lived in countries with oppressive governments,” she said. “I don’t want to think our country has joined them. But I mean, why are they doing this to my daughter?

“I never blindly followed Trump,” she said. “I liked his policies, that’s it. But that we can no longer have an open, honest conversation about the differences we have in this country over elections is disheartening. If we’re depending on the government to unite us, we’re in a lot of trouble.”   

More: Mullane: Are there any Black Catholic American saints? Not yet.

Columnist JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or at jmullane@couriertimes.com.

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