TOP STORY: VATICAN DIPLOMACY: Flynn denies wrongdoing in face of possible reprimand

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

ROME (RNS)-Raymond Flynn, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said Thursday he was doing his job when he fired off a letter to business and religious leaders last spring that said congressional efforts to cut U.S. anti-poverty programs were”mean-spirited”and”immoral.” But a State Department official investigating the matter doesn’t see it that way. Inspector General Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers is recommending a formal reprimand against Flynn for writing a letter that created the”appearance of partisanship”and for failing to get it approved or”cleared”before mailing it.

The recommendation, issued in a Dec. 19 report that has not been formally released, was sent to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who will make a final determination on whether to accept the proposal. A reprimand would likely amount to a blemish on Flynn’s record, but not require his dismissal. An official rebuke would also be something of a political victory for Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms complained to Christopher in a letter last July that the Flynn letter strongly suggested Democrats were more sensitive than Republicans to the Catholic Church’s teachings on poverty and other social issues. Flynn, a Catholic and former Boston mayor who is credited with helping President Clinton win Catholic votes in the 1992 presidential election, was unrepentant.”I still don’t see the letter as partisan at all,”he said in an interview.”I have a job to do. I feel I had an obligation and I still feel that the message was totally accurate.” The inspector general’s report said Flynn violated State Department rules for obtaining clearance before releasing a letter that could be considered partisan. The report also charged that the text of Flynn’s letter, mailed last April, created”the appearance of partisanship in the discharge of his official duties.” Flynn said he has not received a copy of the report, which Helms’ office made available to reporters. In the interview, Flynn said,”Jesse Helms did not send (his) letter because he’s angry about the clearance process but because he doesn’t like the message.” Flynn added that he had forwarded his prepared text on anti-poverty programs to the State Department and the White House as a courtesy several weeks before mailing it, though he said he did not formally seek clearance on it. In any case, the State Department issued no response, Flynn said.”There are rules and regulations that are established by the State Department that everybody has to follow and that includes me,”he said.”The only problem with that is that I submitted it to them and I never heard from the State Department.” But Helms apparently is not satisfied with Flynn’s explanation, despite the inspector general’s contention that State Department officials failed to fully enforce clearance rules on topics that might create political problems. A spokesman for Helms said the senator believes the Justice Department should look into whether Flynn adequately notified the State Department as the ambassador has claimed. The Justice Department said Thursday it had no knowledge of such a request from Helms.”We are asking the Justice Department to see if he (Flynn) violated the law,”said Helms spokesman Marc Thiessen. Thiessen charged that Flynn’s action was”a violation of his oath”as a U.S. ambassador. The controversy stems from an unsolicited letter Flynn wrote last spring to about 1,700 leading U.S. religious, business and academic officials to discuss the U.S.”political climate”in anticipation of Pope John Paul II’s October visit to the East Coast. The letter, inspired by a talk Flynn gave to American university students in Rome on the same topic, was entitled,”From a war on poverty to a war on the poor?: The United States at a crossroads.””The recent debate in the U.S. about poverty … has turned mean-spirited,”he wrote.”Cutting off aid to poor families, poor working mothers and poor children is immoral and wrong.”(BEGIN FIRST OPTIONAL TRIM) During his visit to the United States, John Paul repeatedly called on American citizens and policy makers to protect the poor and vulnerable, and welcome immigrants seeking haven in America.”… It is my prayerful hope,”the pontiff said upon arriving in Newark, N.J.,”that America will persevere in its own best traditions of openness and opportunity. It would indeed be sad if the United States were to turn away from that enterprising spirit which has always sought the most practical and responsible ways of continuing to share with others the blessings God has richly bestowed here.” (END FIRST OPTIONAL TRIM) In his April letter, Flynn did not cite Republican efforts to cut anti-poverty programs. But Helms, in his letter to Christopher last July, said:”It appears that Ambassador Flynn is making the claim in his speech that one political party is better suited than another to the Vatican’s teachings on poverty, and that the Vatican `believes in’ the actions of that party.” In an interview last September, Flynn said,”The (Republican) Contract with America is, in fact, I think, anti-poor and anti-needy families. So it’s inconsistent with the Catholic teachings.”(STORY CAN END HERE. BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM TO END) Flynn, who has served as ambassador since the summer of 1993, said Thursday he has no immediate plans to step down. However, he said he spoke with Clinton last October about the possibility of resigning to join the president’s re-election drive.”I said, `I will be available in whatever way you need me in the campaign,'”Flynn said.”The president said, `Ray, you’re very loyal. I think you’re doing an outstanding job. We’re not into the campaign mode just yet, but you can be a tremendous help to me and we’ll let you know.'” MJP END HEILBRONNER

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