VATICAN CITY – Premier Silvio Berlusconi came under mounting criticism Friday from the Catholic Church over his dalliances with young women, with the pope saying public officials must set good moral examples and Italian bishops planning to discuss the sex scandal.
Pope Benedict XVI didn't mention the scandal or Berlusconi by name. But during an audience with Rome's police chief and police officers, he said 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," Benedict said, echoing more direct comments about the scandal a day earlier by his No. 2.
Prosecutors have placed Berlusconi and three associates under investigation, alleging he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl nicknamed Ruby and used his office to cover it up. Prosecutors have said Berlusconi had sex with several prostitutes during parties at his Milan estate.
Wiretapped conversations of participants at the parties, printed this week in Italian newspapers, have described the villa as a brothel with topless girls, who at least on one occasion were offered nurse uniforms and police outfits to wear — an allegation prompted a police union to formally protest.
Berlusconi has denied the allegations and accused prosecutors of a politically motivated witch hunt. He has not been charged. Ruby, who is now 18, has denied she had sex with Berlusconi, though she says he did give her euro7,000 ($9,400) to help her out financially.
The church's criticism is a blow to the conservative Berlusconi, who — despite his lavish lifestyle and admitted affection for beautiful women — has tried to establish his conservative coalition as supportive of the church's key positions on family, life and social issues.
On Friday, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, said the scandal would be discussed Monday at a meeting of the conference's main decision-making body, the ANSA news agency reported.
The newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference has already called the scandal "hurtful and upsetting" and said it had damaged Italy's international reputation.
Another influential Catholic publication, Famiglia Cristiana, said Friday that, with his antics at his home in Arcore, Berlusconi had managed to divide Italian Catholics in a way they had never before been divided.
"Precisely at the same time the church is announcing a program to re-educate young people in Christianity, we have from Arcore — from its supporters and critics on TV — an opposite message, of an indecent representation of a way to live," the magazine said in an editorial on its website.
Benedict's comments echoed those a day earlier by the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was asked specifically to comment on the scandal.
Bertone said the Vatican was concerned and following the developments "attentively." He said there must be a "more robust morality, a sense of justice and legality" among everyone, particularly those in public office.
Bertone's comments were the first by the Vatican on the scandal, though the Holy See newspaper L'Osservatore Romano had earlier reprinted a statement issued by the Italian president calling for a clear examination of the allegations in court as soon as possible.