Vatican to hear Mother Teresa cash claims

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TODAY, IN a cavernous Catholic church in Calcutta, Vatican officials will take the first steps that could lead to the canonisation of Mother Teresa, who died two years ago. But the path to sainthood may not be smooth for the Albanian-born nun.

Among evidence of her unstinting good work, the rigorous Vatican inquiry will also look at allegations that she accepted funds from unsavoury characters including the ruthless Haitian military ruler, "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Yet supporters of the Nobel Prize winner who died at 87 are confident that Pope John Paul II will put her case on the fast-track. He has already waived a rule that the process should begin only five years after death. Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Calcutta hopes Mother Teresa could be beatified - the first step towards sainthood - next year, making her the first of the new millennium, shattering the record of the Spaniard who founded the Opus Dei movement, Escriva de Balaguer, beatified 17 years after his death.

Father Brian Kodoliejchuk, the Canadian chosen by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity to assemble the case for beatification, said: "This is something similar to a court. We shall investigate all things for and against her. Some people may have negative things to say. People are not born saints."

A 10-strong tribunal will be sworn in today, but the real work will begin later in the week when a three-man panel will begin taking evidence in private from at least 50 witnesses. Written testimony and published evidence will also be considered. One of the most damning attacks on Mother Teresa came from the British writer Christopher Hitchens in his book, The Missionary Position, accusing her of misusing money from dubious sources such as the fallen media magnate Robert Maxwell.

Parallel inquiries will also seek evidence of at least one provable miracle. A second after her death will be required for canonisation. "A miracle is not something explicable in human terms," said Fr Kodoliejchuk. Archbishop D'Souza and Mother Teresa's successor, Sister Nirmala, have already received testimony of several possible miracles.

Gathering the evidence could take some time, before it is passed to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome,which studies the case and makes a recommendation before the Pope decides.

Archbishop D'Souza said: "The evidence could be presented to Rome and simply join the queue. It normally takes 10 years. But we think it is possible it might go ahead quickly." He is confident the necessary material can be gathered within a year.