ROME -- Premier Silvio Berlusconi dismissed calls Tuesday to resign over his involvement with an underage Moroccan runaway -- and even created a new uproar by claiming it was better to love beautiful girls than gays.
His comments sparked outrage from gay rights groups and fueled new calls for him to step down.
Opposition politicians have charged that Berlusconi abused his office by calling Milan police in May when the then-17-year-old runaway nicknamed Ruby was detained for alleged theft. Newspapers have reported that Berlusconi told police that a local party official would take custody of the girl, who had visited Berlusconi's Milan villa on at least one occasion.
Even center-right commentators in Berlusconi's family-owned newspapers have criticized him for intervening in a possible criminal case. Berlusconi's now-estranged ally, Gianfranco Fini, said his antics had embarrassed the country.
But Berlusconi again defended his lifestyle and fondness for young women, telling a trade fair in Milan on Tuesday it was "better to be passionate about a beautiful girl than a gay."
Gay rights group Arcigay demanded an apology for causing offense to both women and gays. Later, about two dozen people holding signs with a photo of Berlusconi and denouncing homophobia demonstrated across the street from the premier's office.
The premier's comments "represent a dangerous incitement to prejudice and helps legitimize discrimination, injustice and suffering," Arcigay president Paolo Pantane wrote in a letter to Berlusconi's minister for equal opportunity, Mara Carfagna.
In response, Carfagna defended Berlusconi's record on anti-discrimination measures and said he had just been joking.
"(He) absolutely never intended to offend women or homosexuals," she said.
Another prominent supporter, Daniela Santanche, a government undersecretary, also rallied to the premier's defense, saying there was nothing disturbing in his comment.
After noting that she "esteems homosexuals," Santanche said: "I am sure that all Italian parents hope to have heterosexual children."
She added that "the hope of every mother is to some day become a grandmother and have their children avoid the problems of a life inherent in the homosexual condition," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted her as saying.
Berlusconi assured supporters on Tuesday that his government still had a majority and would last the remaining half of its five-year term. He said early elections would be a disaster for a country grappling with economic crisis.
He contended that the Ruby scandal was whipped up by hostile, deceptive newspapers and again defended his decision to intervene in her case. Ruby was let go by police with no charges after Nicole Minetti, a party official who is also Berlusconi's dental hygienist, took custody of her.
Berlusconi said Tuesday he'd do the same thing again.
"You will see when this is over that there was nothing more than an act of solidarity," he said.
Ruby, meanwhile, told Libero, a conservative newspaper close to Berlusconi, that she would tell her version of the story Thursday on a popular state-run TV talk show, but her lawyer later said there were no such plans. Ruby's comments have been inconsistent and prosecutors have reportedly questioned her credibility.
She repeated she never had intimate relations with the premier, though she said she "adored" him. She clarified that while another young woman linked to Berlusconi, Noemi Letizia, referred to him as "papi" ("daddy"), she called him "premier."
Berlusconi's relationship with Letizia, an 18-year-old would-be model from Naples, sparked a scandal last year that prompted Berlusconi's second wife to file for divorce.
Soon after, a high-end prostitute, Patrizia D'Addario, claimed she had spent a night with the premier and had tape recorded their encounter.
The conservative leader has said he has never paid anyone for sex. Prosecutors have said Berlusconi is not under investigation in the scandals over his dalliances with women.