Paris - Is Warren Buffett going to hell? That's just one of the burning questions that await 2 340 global leaders, including former US president Bill Clinton and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, when they huddle in the Swiss Alps today for the World Economic Forum (WEF).

It's shaping up to be one hell of a week in Davos, where the attendees, including 23 theologians and 15 heads of state, kick off the 35th annual powwow with a supper panel that confronts the issue of Today's Sinners and the Seven Deadly Sins.

It's a topic that will be discussed at other seminars and official forum gatherings throughout the five-day conference.

"Gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride," explains sin seminar organiser Vanessa Edwards. The seven deadly sins were enumerated by St Gregory the Great in the 6th century.

Fifteen centuries later, the folks who run the forum reckon Gregory's list, popularised by the Italian poet Dante in The Divine Comedy, isn't quite up to the task of explaining modern behaviour.

"We want to find out what is the eighth deadly sin of our time," Edwards says.

Of course, coming up with a new "deadly sin", with a historically sound penalty for breaking it, is bound to cause some gulps among the global leaders in Davos.

Back in Gregory's day, when crime and punishment were a function of fire and brimstone, the consequences of a guilty verdict weren't very pleasant.

According to Dante, the dark angel Beelzebub retained the power to prosecute businessmen such as Buffett on charges of gluttony. And had Beelzebub judged the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway morally culpable for contributing to the obesity of mankind at the company's junk food restaurant chain, Dairy Queen, the Oracle of Omaha would be force-fed rats, snakes and toads.

Edwards says the panel's task is to discover if employing the seven deadly sins is necessary for success and to discuss what fate might await those moguls who skew the rules.

The dinner of the damned offers an abundant menu: former Tyco International chief executive Dennis Kozlowski and WorldCom founder Bernard Ebbers are behind bars. Ousted Hollinger International chief executive Conrad Black has been charged with fraud.

Italian prosecutors are investigating Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for fraud. Refco chief executive Phillip Bennett was arrested for camouflaging debt inside his trading house, perhaps a reflection of Buffett's only known public comment on the underworld: "The derivatives business is like hell. Easy to enter and almost impossible to exit."

Buffett didn't respond to calls seeking to discuss his position on sin. HSBC Holdings chief executive Stephen Green, a lay minister in the Church of England and author of Serving God? Serving Mammon? also declined to address the issue.

Michael Broadbent, HSBC's corporate affairs director, said: "Our strong emphasis on teamwork means that my senior colleagues have a marked preference for focusing on business issues."

WEF founder and president Klaus Schwab explains: "Today's global leaders, all of them, somewhere, have an element of bad conscience for what they are doing.

"This is why they're shy about speaking publicly about morality and sin. It's a highly emotionalised issue and not considered part of the free market."

Yet sin is no taboo subject for shareholders. Last year, 72 percent of 1 100 "investors" surveyed by Roper in the US agreed that wrongdoing was widespread in business, up from 66 percent in 2004. Only 2 percent of those polled said they trusted chief executives, with a mere 9 percent saying they had faith in the financial services industry.

A 2005 Harris poll showed 75 percent of 1 011 American adults believed the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer", up from 68 percent in 2004.

When asked if they thought "most people with power try to take advantage of people like you", 60 percent of the respondents said yes, up from 53 percent in 2004. More than half the folks questioned by Harris said "people running the country don't really care" what happened to those surveyed.

At the same time, a Christmas season survey conducted by Gallup revealed that 94 percent of the American public believes God exists. If so, will Lucifer put former Morgan Stanley chief executive Philip Purcell on trial for taking a $44 million (R262 million) retirement bonus in 2005?

The consequence of a guilty decision on charges of pride, Dante writes, is eternity being broken on the wheel.

As for the possibility of redemption, Brian Johnstone, a priest and corporate sin analyst at the Alphonsianum in Rome, says his "academy of moral theology" has spent the past 100 years studying the seven deadly sins and suggesting salvation solutions to businessmen.

The devil may be in the details, but there's grace in the loopholes offered by the full-time clergymen at the group's headquarters above a courtyard tucked behind a supermarket.

Back in the 18th century, Alponsus Ligouri, an Italian property lawyer who noticed that his wealthy clients were morally bankrupt, figured he had enough raw data to affect the fate of corporate man.

"Ligouri believed it wasn't enough for a businessman to just have a legal contract," Johnstone says. "Businessmen need a shared morality, so Ligouri devoted his life to discerning how to conduct business without sin and was made a saint for his efforts."

As well as continuing Ligouri's research into sin, the Alphonsianum's 30 scholar priests devise strategies that executives can use to avoid becoming casualties in the battle between good and evil.

"Businessmen often tell me people at the top get there by shady means," the former military chaplain says. "But you can be successful without sin."

Johnstone says Davos organisers are courageous to place sin on centre stage. His candidates for the eighth deadly sin are "nationalism in the name of God" and "not acting to change social and economic structures that kill people".

Both entrants, he says, could be unified as one sin under the Latin term ignorantia affectata, or cultivated ignorance.

As for Buffett, Johnstone suspects the keeper of the Pearly Gates has the evidence to bring the Dairy Queen boss to trial "for providing conditions that stimulate others to indulge in gluttony that destroys their health". Whether the charges hold up in court is another matter, he says.

"I'm sure careful reasoning will be employed in Buffett's case," Johnstone says with a smile. "Though I don't believe there will be any opportunity for plea bargaining."

- Bloomberg