ROME – An annual celebration of the 1929 treaty that governs relations between Italy and the Vatican took an awkward turn Friday, as Premier Silvio Berlusconi, engulfed in a prostitution scandal, attended a ceremony with the Vatican's No 2. official.
Berlusconi said the encounter with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone had been "great, as always," but Bertone slipped out a side door and declined to speak with reporters as he has done in years past.
Berlusconi has come under criticism from the Catholic Church over the scandal, which centers on his alleged encounters with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl. The 74-year-old leader was indicted this week on charges he paid for sex with the girl, and then abused his influence to cover it up.
Berlusconi denies the charges.
Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, has said the Vatican was concerned about the scandal and was following its developments attentively. He has called for a "more robust morality, a sense of justice and legality" among everyone, particularly those in public office.
Bertone was seated next to Berlusconi during the closed-door meeting inside Italy's embassy to the Vatican, but it wasn't clear if they spoke. Berlusconi was only seen chatting with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, who has been equally critical of the scandal.
President Giorgio Napolitano, who also attended, said relations remained good. He said Bertone and Bagnasco had confirmed that the church and the pope to some degree would participate in the government's planned celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification — a sign that at least institutional ties between the two remained solid despite the scandal.
The Vatican's criticism has been a blow to Berlusconi, whose conservative coalition had gained the church's favor thanks to its pro-church positions on family, life and social issues.
Still, Berlusconi has so far survived a scandal that would have forced most European leaders to step down. Newspapers have been filled for weeks with revelations of alleged sex-fueled parties at Berlusconi's villas, with topless women dancing around.
Both Berlusconi and the girl, named Karima el-Mahroug and nicknamed Ruby, have denied a sexual relationship. Berlusconi has denied he exerted undue pressure when he called Milan police in May to seek the release of the woman, who had been detained for an unrelated theft.
Berlusconi insists he will finish his term, which ends in 2013.
The premier has been working — successfully — to improve his parliamentary majority, which was eroded after a split with a longtime ally, Gianfranco Fini, who commands a few dozen lawmakers in parliament.Some of the lawmakers who had initially followed Fini are now going back to Berlusconi's side.
The Lateran Pact was signed in 1929 by a delegate for Pope Pius XI and Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, giving the Roman Catholic Church many privileges in Italy. In 1984, the Vatican and the Italian government, led then by the late Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi, agreed to a revised pact that eliminated Roman Catholicism as Italy's state religion.