A top Vatican official has subtly but clearly rebuked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi over allegations that Berlusconi paid a 17-year-old prostitute and other women for sex at parties in his villa near Milan. The remarks apparently signal an end to the church's quiet support for the controversial billionaire and media mogul.
"The Holy See is watching these Italian matters with attention and, in particular, worry," Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state and ranking church official after Pope Benedict XVI, told reporters
on Thursday when asked about the charges swirling around Berlusconi.
"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," Bertone said, according to Italian news media
On Friday, Pope Benedict himself weigh in on the theme, telling an audience
of Rome's police chief and police officers that public officials must "rediscover their spiritual and moral roots."
"The singular vocation that the city of Rome requires today of you, who are public officials, is to offer a good example of the positive and useful interaction between a healthy lay status and the Christian faith," the pontiff said.
Also Friday, Italian media reported that the Italian bishops would discuss the Berlusconi scandals at a maeeting on Monday of the hierarchy's main decision-making body.
Berlusconi's ears might be burning, though he is not easily embarrassed.
The 74-year-old Berlusconi, for years the most powerful figure in Italian politics and society, has a reputation for making controversial remarks that have endeared him to many Italians and made him anathema to others.
But over the past two years the prime minister's public sexcapades with various women have begun to test the patience of even diehard supporters. He has come under increasing pressure to resign since magistrates accused him of paying for sex with an underage nightclub dancer who goes by the stage name "Ruby Heartstealer."
While a few Catholic publications and individual priests have admonished Berlusconi, the Vatican, whose influence in Italy remains formidable, has conspicuously declined to criticize the prime minister because the hierarchy feels his center-right government is supportive of Vatican positions on traditional morality.
Criticizing the Italian leader for having sex with a minor could also pose a public relations problem for the Vatican just as it is defending itself against ongoing revelations about its tepid response to the scandal of clergy who sexually abused children.
But Berlusconi's behavior seems to have become too much for the Vatican. As Reuters reported
, the Vatican newspaper this week took the unusual step of publishing a statement by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in which he said he was very worried about the effect the crisis was having on Italy's stability.
Italian newspapers have been reporting almost daily on stories of kinky parties at Berlusconi's villa that were described in phone transcripts as featuring showgirls wearing, among other things, nurse uniforms.
Ruby Heartstealer, a Moroccan native whose real name is Karima El Mahroug, is a focus of the investigations. She has said she was paid 7,000 euros ($9,390) by Berlusconi after attending one of his parties but had not slept with him. Italian media have published leaks of transcripts of wiretaps in which she asked Berlusconi for 5 million euros in exchange for her silence.
El Mahroug also denies that, and Berlusconi has denied having sex with her. He also accuses Italian authorities of waging a vendetta against him and this week said he would propose new laws to prevent investigators from pursuing elected officials.
A top court last week ruled that Berlusconi did not have automatic immunity from prosecution, and last month he barely survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament.