USA

Consumers ratcheted up their spending by half a percent in November, the largest increase in four months. This gain followed a solid 0.4 percent increase in October, the Commerce Department reported Monday. But the news did little to cheer retailers, who say the good start to the holiday season - with better-than-expected Thanksgiving sales - soon petered out. Despite bustling stores and malls on the last weekend before Christmas, retailers are reporting surprisingly weak sales.

The First Amendment separation of church and state precludes the Roman Catholic Church from legal action in its ongoing sex-abuse scandal, lawyers for the Boston Archdiocese argued. If a motion they filed Monday is upheld in Massachusetts Superior Court, more than 400 claims that could cost the church millions of dollars will be thrown out. Bishop Richard G. Lennon, apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, said Sunday the motion was being filed to satisfy insurance companies' requirements that the church avail itself of every significant defense.

In his first public remarks since resigning as Senate GOP leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi conceded he had only himself to blame for the racially charged controversy that heralded his downfall. He also alluded to unnamed political enemies who have been lying in wait for a chance to pounce - and found it three weeks ago, when his praise for retiring colleague Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist run for president ignited a firestorm of criticism.

US Sen. Bob Graham of Florida said he is considering a run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Graham, who has served in the Senate for 16 years, told reporters he's not satisfied with the direction in which President Bush is leading the country. He said he's "considering what I think could be my contribution toward a new direction for America."

Tests using engineering models support the nuclear industry's argument that reactors could withstand a direct hit by a jetliner, a new industry-sponsored report said. Federal regulators briefed on the findings were, however, awaiting results from their own tests before drawing conclusions. The vulnerability of four-foot-thick concrete containment domes to an airborne attack has been a concern since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Three female whistleblowers were named Time magazine's persons of the year. Colleen Rowley, Cynthia Cooper, and Sherron Watkins were selected "for believing - really believing - that the truth is one thing that must not be moved off the books, and for stepping in to make sure that it wasn't." Rowley, an FBI agent in Minneapolis, had her pleas for an aggressive investigation of alleged Sept. 11 terrorist-accomplice Zacarias Moussaoui ignored. Cooper, an internal auditor at WorldCom, alerted the firm's board to $3.8 billion in accounting irregularities. Watkins was a vice president at Enron who warned executives that the company could face collapse due to false accounting.

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