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Love And Marriage On the Internet

Adultery is adultery, even if it is virtual, according to Famiglia Cristiana (Christian Family), an Italian magazine close to the Vatican. It is just as sinful as the real thing.

On the other hand, you can't obtain a divorce via the Internet, at least not one that will be recognized in Texas. The state's attorney general has sued AAA Legal Alternatives in a state court, claiming false advertising.

The Web site offered quickie, convenient divorces: Neither party had to appear in a Dominican Republic court, the marriage could be dissolved in fewer than three days and it even took the $1,500 fee in installments.

The question of the morality of flirting, falling in love and perhaps betraying a spouse via the World Wide Web surfaced in the advice column of the latest issue of Italy's largest-circulation newsweekly.

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A woman from the northern city of Varese wrote to the magazine, which is sold in Italian churches as well as news kiosks, asking for moral guidance as she surfed the Web.

"On the Internet you can fall in love, you can seek, you can think, you can truly desire. And you can commit adultery without leaving your home," the woman wrote in a long letter.

"I ask myself what difference there is for the Church between a real extramarital affair and a virtual one. I ask myself how long this new (Internet) reality, which is so tangible, can be underestimated," she wrote.

Father Antonio Sciortino, responding to the anonymous woman in the magazine's "Conversations with the Priest" column, had no hesitation.

For the Church, there is no difference.

"Virtual reality can be just as much of a vice as reality made up of facts and actions," Sciortino, the magazine's editor-in-chief, wrote in his response.

"Gospel morals attach a premium to what is inside a person and are just as concerned with bad thoughts as they are with bad actions," he explained.

The priest recalled Christ's phrase in the Bible that if a man looks at a woman with lust he has already committed "adultery in his heart."

Texas Attorney General John Cornyn claimed Tom Hill and his company falsely advertised through his Web site from September 1997 to January 1999 that he was able to obtain quick divorces for United States residents in the Caribbean nation.

Fees for a "Dominican celebrity divorce" ranged from $650 to $1,595 depending on how quickly the customer wanted the divorce and whether both parties agreed to the procedure.

Hill even offered a "lay-away divorce plan," which allowed customers to pay in installments and receive the service once the final installment was made.

Hill said he could get divorces in as few as three days from the day he received the paperwork and payment. He also said no one had to appear in court.

"However, according to the laws of the Dominican Republic, non-resident foreigners are not eligible for unilateral divorces in the Dominican Republic. And if a consmer wants a mutual consent divorce, one of the divorcing spouses has to make a personal appearance in the Dominican Court. These are facts Hill does not disclose," the attorney general's petition said.

The cyber-adultery story received wide play in Italy, where more than 97 percent of the population is nominally Roman Catholic.

"Cheating online is Adultery," ran the headline in La Stampa of Turin. "Famiglia Cristiana gives its thumbs down to virtual love."

La Stampa's article, which took up a third of a page, was replete with comments ranging from a novelist to a sex symbol actress.

Another newspaper, Il Giornale, dedicated half a page to the story and included a poll that said 40 percent of Italian women interviewed for it said they feared that their husbands might find a woman more fascinating than them while surfing the Web.

Many customers never received divorce papers or other verification of the divorce and no evidence exists to show Hill even attempted to end the marriages, according to court documents.

"It does not matter if fraudulent businesses use the phone, mail or the Internet for their scams. Those who deceive Texas consumers will be punished," Cornyn said.

Hill, also known as Tom Hicks, operated the business from El Paso but has since shut down and moved to Austin. Directory assistance had no listing for either the business or Hill.

Cornyn's lawsuit asks for a court order that would prohibit Hill from re-opening the business or Web site. It also asks for restitution for consumers.

If the court agrees, Hill could face civil penalties of up to $10,000 plus court fees and attorneys' costs.

As Father Sciortino acknowledged in his response to the woman from Varese, the personal computer has changed many things in the world, even the way a marriage can fall apart.

©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters Limited and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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