Charges that Italy's scandal-prone prime minister had sex with an underage nightclub dancer have occupied Italian headlines for days. Now the Catholic Church's highest leaders are calling on him to return to morality.
Berlusconi vehemently denies the sex allegations
Pope Benedict XVI tacitly chided Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday, saying public officials must rediscover morality as Berlusconi's latest sex scandal escalates to a criminal investigation.
"The new challenges on the horizon require God and man to meet again, and society and public institutions to rediscover their souls, their spiritual and moral roots," Benedict said at the Vatican before a meeting with Italian officials, including Rome's police chief.
"In our world... the impression is given that moral consensus is lacking and consequently the foundations of social life are not able to function properly," the pontiff said.
While he did not mention Berlusconi by name, his comments were widely interpreted to be in reference to the prime minister's most recent sex scandal.
The pope called on all Italian officials to rediscover their 'moral roots'
Prosecutors in Milan announced last week that they were investigating Berlusconi for paying for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer nicknamed "Ruby Heartstealer."
They are also investigating three of Berlusconi's associates and accuse him of using his office to cover up the scandal.
Paying for sex is not illegal in Italy, but a law enacted by Berlusconi's government in 2006 made sex with prostitutes under 18 an offense punishable with a prison sentence. The teen admits Berlusconi paid her 7,000 euros ($9,490), but said they never had sex.
Vatican wags its finger
The Holy See had already begun inserting itself into the debate over Berlusconi's alleged philandering, with the pope's right-hand man saying the Vatican was following "these Italian affairs with great attention and concern."
"The Church pushes and invites everyone, above all those who hold public responsibility in any administrative, political and judicial area, to be committed to a more robust morality, a sense of justice and lawfulness," Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican state secretary, told reporters on Thursday.
In addition, the center-left newspaper L'Unita said on Thursday that some 20,000 Italian women had signed an online petition titled "Basta!" or "Enough!" which denounces the degrading image of women that Berlusconi and his supporters have propagated.
The nightclub dancer 'Ruby' says Berlusconi gave her money, but they never had sex
Magistrates vs. Berlusconi
Berlusconi has launched his own media campaign in his defense, saying there has been "no graft, no incitement to prostitution, not even of a minor."
He also accused the magistrates of "violating basic constitutional principles" by wiretapping guests who had attended his parties, and said their behavior "cannot go without adequate punishment."
The magistrates had summoned Berlusconi for questioning, but prime minister has refused, saying the investigation was politically motivated and that the magistracy did not have the authority to preside over the case.
Luca Palamara, president of the Italian magistrates' association, shot back on SkyTG24 television by calling Berlusconi's comments "unacceptable" and that they "seriously threatened the autonomy and independence of the magistracy."
Author: Andrew Bowen (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
Editor: Rob Turner