NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A historic New Orleans cemetery that may have started New Orleans' tradition of above-ground crypts will soon be off-limits to tourists on their own because of repeated vandalism among the tombs, the Roman Catholic archdiocese that owns the property has announced.
Starting in March, entry to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and its labyrinth of mausoleums will be restricted to the relatives of the dead buried there and to tourists whose guide is registered with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
"We've had unlicensed tour guides and others handing out markers and instructions on how to mark up various tombs," archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said Monday.
One of the most famous tombs, reputed to be the burial site of 19th Century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, is repeatedly marked with Xs and, in late 2013, was covered from one end to the other with pink latex paint.
"We also have people leaving trash in the cemetery, littering, setting up camp in the cemetery," she said in an interview.
Established in 1789, the cemetery surrounded by 10-foot-high brick walls is the oldest remaining graveyard in this city beside the Mississippi River, which has grown into a Deep South tourist destination renowned for Mardi Gras, jazz, Cajun cuisine and the sometimes elaborate mausoleums that make its cemeteries known as "cities of the dead."
Early burials in St. Louis No. 1 are thought to have been below ground or in low tombs that held a single coffin partly above ground, according to the website for Save Our Cemeteries, a cemetery restoration nonprofit. Concrete and marble burial vaults, experts believe, were built on top of those earlier graves tombs to accommodate later burials.
All told, St. Louis No. 1 covers an entire city block with "a maze of tombs and aisles," the organization notes.
Those include walls of "oven vaults" for people who could not afford stand-alone mausoleums and elaborate tombs for members of various societies.
The thousands of people buried in the cemetery include Homer Plessy, who was the plaintiff in Plessy v Ferguson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation laws were constitutional; the first mayor of New Orleans, Etienne de Bore; and world chess champion Paul Morphy.
Sherri Peppo, director of the archdiocesan cemeteries office, said in a news release Monday that several tombs have been broken into and vandalized in the past year. The statement said even security cameras were stolen.
Complicating matters, a local legend has it that the voodoo priestess Laveau will grant a wish for someone who makes an X on the tomb believed to be hers, turns around three times, knocks on the tomb and shouts the wish.
"We needed to take some steps to protect both the sacred nature of the cemetery and preserve the history that is there as well," Peppo said.
Registration for tour guides will begin in February, the archdiocese said. Tour companies and independent guides must show insurance and a city license. Guides who occasionally bring tours to the cemetery can pay $40 for a one-time pass; those giving regular tours must pay the archdiocese a registration fee of $4,500 to $5,400 a year. The lower amount is for those paying once a year.
Both policy and fees are reasonable, said Amanda Walker, director of Save Our Cemeteries, which gives tours of St. Louis cemeteries 1 and 2 and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 to raise money for restoration of the tombs. Her nonprofit has partnered with the archdiocese for years to hire security at the cemeteries.
She noted that cemetery tours currently are being conducted by guides for "pure profit."
"None of the money goes to the cemetery," she noted.
McDonald said relatives of those buried in the cemetery are asked, meanwhile, to get in touch with the archdiocese to make entry arrangements — likewise for scholars and those conducting genealogical research.
The new fees are expected to pay to staff the cemetery during business hours and take unspecified security measures that officials are declining to reveal.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Cory and Erin Blanchard can measure the milestones of their lives together so far - 1,105 days of dating, 11 days between their engagement and their wedding, and exactly one month between Erin's ultrasound and her surgery after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
They had dreamed of a huge wedding at a plantation house in New Orleans, followed by a reception with a big brass band that kept everyone dancing late into the night.
"When we got the diagnosis back, none of that seemed to matter anymore," Erin said. "Neither one of us thought we were shorting ourselves. It just felt like this is the way it should have always been done."
On Saturday, Jan. 17, they were married in a brief ceremony, followed by a reception at Trim Tab Brewing Company.
The makeshift tables of wooden pallets balanced on kegs, with Mardi Gras masks and beads were scattered on the tabletops. The guests ate gumbo and king cake and enjoyed a steady flow of locally brewed beer.
A few days before Christmas, Erin's ultrasound showed several masses. After that, their plans remained hypothetical until doctors confirmed it was thyroid cancer. At first, they worried it would seem they were rushing into it, that they were scared.
"I just wanted to have that moment with him - that public proclamation of love before we go down this path," Erin said. "I didn't want it tarnished in any way. If I have to have radiation, chemo, whatever might come, I didn't want this to be affected by whatever aftermath was going to be there."
Cory and Erin - usually meticulous in planning the details of an elaborate party - had about a week to put together a ceremony others spend a year or longer planning. Each day brought more wedding preparation - buying rings, booking a venue, ordering a dress, setting up a registry - but also more help than they expected.
"The outpouring of support over the wedding and what's going on health-wise, the surgery, was completely overwhelming," Erin said. "People at work would come to me and tell me their church congregation lifted me up in prayer - literally people I barely know. A while ago, if someone had told me that, I would think it's a little strange, but it is touching, very humbling and it made me feel very lucky."
Even with such short notice, more than 100 people attended. Though the big brass band couldn't be booked and there were a few minor hitches, their wedding went well, Cory said.
"Most people know us well enough to realize we weren't able to put everything we have into throwing this event," Cory said.
And, despite the circumstances, there was a degree of practicality that appealed to them.
The ceremony saved them thousands of dollars and months of stressing about wedding plans, and family and friends pitched in to make sure the day went as smoothly as possible.
Sometime down the road - their second or third or fifth anniversary - they'll throw that big, celebratory, New Orleans-style party they always wanted.
From their first date watching a Saints game to their Mardi Gras-themed wedding, their shared love of all things New Orleans has been evident.
They grew up just a few miles apart, but they met in Alabama three years ago, when Cory was living in Tuscaloosa and Erin in Birmingham.
Though Erin had reservations after a previous relationship, Cory knew how he felt from early on. Eventually, the couple had no doubt they wanted to spend their lives together.
In June 2014, they bought a house, knowing the decision would mean pushing back their marriage plans.
"We were OK with that," Erin said. "We weren't married yesterday, and we're married today, and here we sit in the same places we normally do."
In the days leading up to her surgery last Thursday, she remained calm, reassured with Cory by her side and her family's support. At a follow-up appointment this week, they will learn what the next steps for treatment will be.
Erin knows she can count on Cory, who has been supportive while she works a full-time job and studies for her graduate school classes. She hopes to graduate in the spring of 2016.
"I'm hoping it all seems like a blur when I'm done," she said. "It will be challenging but doable."
BRZEZINKA, Poland (AP) — A Jewish leader stood before 300 survivors of the Nazis' most notorious death camp on Tuesday and asked world leaders to prevent another Auschwitz, warning of a rise of anti-Semitism that has made many Jews fearful of walking the streets, and is causing many to flee Europe.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, made his bleak assessment on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, speaking next to the gate and the railroad tracks that marked the last journey for more than a million people murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
He said his speech was shaped by the recent terrorist attacks in France that targeted Jews and newspaper satirists.
"For a time, we thought that the hatred of Jews had finally been eradicated. But slowly the demonization of Jews started to come back," Lauder said. "Once again, young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes on the streets of Paris and Budapest and London. Once again, Jewish businesses are targeted. And once again, Jewish families are fleeing Europe."
The recent attack in Paris, in which four Jews were killed in a kosher supermarket, is not the first deadly attack on Jews in recent years. Last May a shooting killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and in 2012 a rabbi and three children were murdered in the French city of Toulouse.
Europe also saw a spasm of anti-Semitism last summer during the war in Gaza, with protests in Paris turning violent and other hostility across the continent.
"This vilification of Israel, the only Jewish state on earth, quickly became an opportunity to attack Jews," Lauder said. "Much of this came from the Middle East, but it has found fertile ground throughout the world."
One Holocaust survivor, Roman Kent, became emotional as he issued a plea to world leaders to remember the atrocities and fight for tolerance.
"We do not want our past to be our children's future," the 85-year-old said to applause, fighting back tears and repeating those words a second time.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who was in Saudi Arabia to pay respects after the death of King Abdullah, issued a statement paying tribute to the 6 million Jews and millions of others murdered by the Nazis.
"The recent terrorist attacks in Paris serve as a painful reminder of our obligation to condemn and combat rising anti-Semitism in all its forms, including the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust," Obama said. A U.S. delegation to the ceremony was led by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where he said: "My job as prime minister of Israel is to make sure that there won't be any more threats of destruction against the state of Israel. My job is to ensure that there won't be any reasons to establish any more memorial sites like Yad Vashem."
The commemorations in Poland, which during World War II was under Nazi occupation, were also marked by a melancholy awareness that it will be the last major anniversary that a significant number of survivors will be strong enough to attend.
"The survivors are completely gutted that in their lifetime they went through what they went through and that now they are at the end of their life and they don't know what kind of world they are leaving for their grandchildren," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. "That is very disappointing for them. We have let them down."
Politics also cast a shadow on the event, with Russian President Vladimir Putin absent — even though the Soviet Red Army liberated the camp — the result of the deep chill between the West and Russia over Ukraine.
Among those in attendance were French President Francois Hollande, who has vowed to fight the violent extremism that has wounded his nation, as well as the presidents of Germany and Austria, the perpetrator nations that have spent decades atoning for their sins.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was also there in a sign of Poland's strong support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.
Poland apparently snubbed Putin, though officials don't say that openly. The organizers, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council, opted for a form of protocol this year that avoided direct invitations by Poland's president to his foreign counterparts. The organizers instead simply asked countries that are donors to Auschwitz, including Russia, whom they planned to send. Poland's Foreign Ministry says Putin could have attended if he wished.
The Russian delegation was led by Sergei Ivanov, Putin's chief of staff.
The public spat comes at a low point in relations between Russia and the West, following Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and its support for the rebel forces battling Kiev's troops in eastern Ukraine. Poland has been vocal in condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine, which has plunged the continent into one of the worst East-West crises since the end of the Cold War.
Some of the survivors said they thought Putin should have been there, given the fact that Soviet soldiers fought and died to liberate the camp, and Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union.
"They lost their lives and we should honor them," said Natan Grossmann, a survivor who now lives in Munich.
In Moscow, Putin visited the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center and used the occasion to press the Russian points on Ukraine. He spoke of the Ukrainian nationalists' collaboration with the Nazis in killing Jews during the war, and he accused Ukrainian authorities today of killing civilians in Donetsk and Luhansk in cold blood.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Follow Vanessa Gera on Twitter at twitter.com/VanessaGera
The federal government's failure to enforce the nation's child protection laws is a "national disgrace" that leaves abused children vulnerable to future harm, according to a three-year study by two child advocacy groups.
The 110-page report released Tuesday identified some of the same failures reported in December by The Associated Press after an eight-month investigation into hundreds of children who died of abuse or neglect in plain view of child protection authorities.
"Our laws are weak. We don't invest in solutions. Federal laws aren't enforced. And courts are turning their backs. This creates a trifecta of inertia and neglect," said Amy Harfeld, policy director at the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, which wrote the report with the nonprofit group First Star.
AP's investigation, published Dec. 18, also revealed a system in crisis, hobbled by weak federal oversight, budget constraints, worker shortages and a voluntary data collection system so flawed that nobody can say with accuracy how many children die from abuse or neglect each year.
The AP found that at least 786 children died of abuse and neglect over a six-year span — many of them beaten, starved or left alone to drown — while agencies had good reason to know they were in danger. That figure represents the most comprehensive statistics publicly available, but the actual number who died even as authorities were investigating their families or providing some form of protective services is likely much higher because antiquated confidentiality laws allow many states to withhold vital information, shrouding their failures.
The federal government estimates an average of about 1,650 children have died annually from abuse or neglect in recent years, whether or not they were known to the child welfare system, but many experts believe the actual number is twice as high. And many more suffer from near-fatal abuse and neglect every year.
"Almost everything that happens to these children is cloaked in endemic secrecy, and most efforts by the media and advocates to provide the public with much needed transparency — which leads to accountability — are thwarted by the very governmental entities and officials who have turned their backs on their official duties to children," the groups said.
Michael Petit, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the Federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities and serves as adviser to the advocacy group Every Child Matters, said he agreed with what he has read thus far in the report, entitled "Shame on U.S."
"The report is saying what a lot of people have been experiencing," Petit said, who wasn't speaking on the commission's behalf. "I share many of those sentiments that the federal government is not providing the kind of oversight needed."
The Children's Advocacy Institute and First Star fault all three branches of federal government for failing to protect children.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for implementing and enforcing federal child welfare laws and programs, but the agency largely takes a hands-off approach, allowing states to self-certify that they are in compliance with federal requirements.
"There is no meaningful oversight and the states know it," the report said.
Agency spokeswoman Laura Goulding did not immediately return a call and an email seeking comment on the report Monday.
Congress needs to mandate that HHS impose fines, withhold funds or take other punitive actions when states don't follow federal regulations, the report said.
Because HHS and Congress so rarely hold states accountable for their failings, filing a lawsuit is usually the only way private parties can challenge problems within the child welfare system. But lawsuits are time consuming, expensive and often limited in their reach, covering violations in only one state or county rather than widespread systemic failures, the groups said.
"Federal courts have turned their backs on private attempts to enforce federal child welfare law and Congress has shown little interest in advancing the law itself," the report said.
Emily Douglas, a child welfare expert at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., called the report's findings about the judicial branch's shortcomings particularly revealing.
"When something goes wrong, usually you hear that the state child welfare agency is a wreck or that the governor is stepping in to fire someone," Douglas said. "But increasingly judges are going to be on the radar about the important role that they play in determining these kids' safety. Judges are not trained social workers, so are we sure they always know the risk factors when deciding children should be sent back home?"
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at email@example.com
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Nine black men arrested for integrating a whites-only South Carolina lunch counter 54 years ago may be heroes in the historic record, but in the record of the law they are still convicted trespassers.
That criminal record will soon be erased.
On Wednesday, a prosecutor is expected to ask a judge to vacate the arrests and convictions of the men known as the Friendship Nine.
The men say that brings both relief and a hope for the future.
The eight students at Rock Hill's Friendship Junior College — Willie McCleod, Robert McCullough, W.T. "Dub" Massey, Clarence Graham, James Wells, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines and Mack Workman — were led by Thomas Gaither, who came to town as an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality.
About a year had passed since the sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, helped galvanize the nation's civil rights movement, but change was slow to come to Rock Hill. They decided to act together, getting arrested in February 1961 for ordering lunch from a whites-only counter at McCrory's variety store.
Convicted of trespassing and breach of peace, the men opted for a month's hard labor in a chain gang rather than allow bail money to be posted for them by civil rights groups. They did not want to contribute to the coffers of segregationists.
That decision drew national headlines, garnering the group the name the "Friendship Nine" and setting the standard for a "jail, no bail" policy emulated by other protesters around the South.
Author Kim Johnson took an interest in the men's story, studying their case and publishing a book entitled "No Fear For Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9" last year. After doing some research, Johnson went to Kevin Brackett, the solicitor for York and Union counties, to see what could be done to give the men a clean slate.
"This is an opportunity for us to bring the community together," Johnson told The Associated Press. "To have the records vacated essentially says that it should have never happened in the first place."
On Wednesday, Brackett will argue a motion to vacate those convictions before a Rock Hill judge who is expected to do just that.
It comes too late for McCullough, who died in 2006. But some of the others returned to town ahead of the hearing to reflect on their experience, telling the AP they hope their actions can still have an impact.
"It's been a long wait," Graham said. "We are sure now that we made the right decision for the right reason. Being nonviolent was the best thing that we could have done."
The men's names are engraved on the stools at the counter of the restaurant on Main Street, now called the Old Town Bistro. A plaque outside marks the spot where they were arrested. And official and personal apologies have been offered to the men over the years.
In 2009, a white man named Elwin Wilson who tried to pull one of the protesters from a stool nearly 50 years earlier returned to the same counter, meeting with some of the men. They forgave him.
Massey said he has no regrets.
"Everything that happened, happened for a reason," he said. "We have to continue what we're doing. If we're backing off from what we've done, then there's a problem here."
And although their records will soon be clean, the men hope their commitment to nonviolence can remain an example for people protesting various issues today.
"Maybe it might change some of their minds about some of their actions," Graham said. "Until the hearts change, there won't be any changes. We still insist that nonviolence is the way to go."
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union's anti-terror chief called Tuesday for countries to rehabilitate rather than punish returning jihadis with no blood on their hands, saying that some prisons have become "incubators of radicalization."
EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said in an interview with The Associated Press that "if we can avoid prison, let's avoid prison."
At a time when EU nations are still shocked by the attacks in France early this month, many are pushing for swift, repressive measures for anyone who has gone off to fight holy war in Syria or Iraq.
And even if true criminals among the returnees need to be punished with jail time, "I don't advise to bring them all to court because it would be a mistake," De Kerchove said.
Since the Jan. 7-9 Paris attacks that killed 20 people, including the three gunmen, dozens of people have been charged in France with defending terrorism. Several were almost immediately convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing. Inciting terrorism can bring a five-year prison term — or up to seven years for inciting terrorism online.
"We know how much jails are major incubators of radicalization. Much better, provided they accept to do that, they undertake major rehabilitation," De Kerchove said.
France recently expanded prison terms for terrorism-related offenses, but the country was still caught off-guard when a member of a jihadi network worked in tandem with his brother and a former jailhouse acquaintance during three days of attacks in the Paris region.
"These people got radicalized in prison," De Kerchove said.
And for those who are convicted, he suggests jails be designed "in a way that they are not in contact with petty criminals" and instead can meet with moderate imams. Belgium is already working on such plans.
A major challenge facing the authorities is to collect evidence against foreign fighters traveling to conflict-torn Syria that would stand up in European courts.
In many cases it's virtually impossible to prove whether suspects have joined the Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian President Bashar Assad or joined the ranks of the Islamic State group.
De Kerchove looked positively on a program for returnees in Aarhus, Denmark's second largest city, which former political extremists and foreign fighters can voluntarily join.
On Tuesday, Denmark earmarked 60.9 million kroner ($9.2 million) over the next three years for programs to de-radicalize Islamic extremists, including those who have fought with jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq.
Justice Minister Mette Frederiksen said about 7 million kroner ($1 million) will be spent on exit programs for former foreign fighters.
Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp stressed the program "is in no way a reward, a second chance on a silver plate. It is about protecting society, and avoid having people running around with a knife or an ax."
"Many countries rely on repression but punitive methods are a recipe to create resentment toward the society," Ranstorp said.
Whatever program returnees enter, it would remain a challenge to be sure when and if they are fully de-radicalized, but De Kerchove said it was "probably something achievable."
Meanwhile, anti-terror raids in France and Belgium netted five more suspects on Tuesday as Paris urged its EU partners to step up the fight against terror financing with new measures to make transactions more transparent.
Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that raids in southern France detained five people and broke up "one more network" in a small town that has seen several youths leave to fight in Syria and Iraq.
In western Belgium, authorities detained three men in an operation linked to a terror threat but they were later released and not charged, said prosecutor spokeswoman Karlien Ververken.
A raid in the eastern town of Verviers earlier this month left two suspects dead and later put seven more behind bars. Belgian authorities said that raid had averted an imminent major terrorist attack against police and their offices.
At EU headquarters, European finance ministers endorsed an anti-money laundering deal and threw their weight behind French proposals to boost intelligence-sharing on terror financing, tighten controls on virtual currencies like bitcoins and crack down on anonymous money transfers.
"We have to stop this anonymity. It is really dangerous for our citizens," French Finance Minister Michel Sapin told reporters.
The new money-laundering plan aims to ensure that the real owners of companies and trusts are listed in public registers in Europe, and to force banks, auditors, lawyers and others to be more vigilant about suspicious transactions. The measures will be debated by EU leaders on February 12.
Lorne Cook in Brussels, Lori Hinnant in Paris and Jan Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this article
Raf Casert can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert