Berlusconi scandal embarrasses the Vatican top brass

An annual celebration of the 1929 treaty that governs relations between Italy and the Vatican took an awkward turn yesterday, when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is engulfed in a prostitution scandal, attended a ceremony with the Vatican’s No 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Berlusconi has come under criticism from the Catholic church over the scandal, which centres on his alleged encounters with a 17-year-old Moroccan girl. The 74-year-old leader was recently indicted on charges that he paid for sex with the girl, and then abused his influence in an attempt to cover it up. He denies the charges.

In comments last month, Bertone said the Vatican was concerned about the scandal and following its developments attentively. He called for a “more robust morality, a sense of justice and legality” among everyone, particularly those in public office.

Pope Benedict XVI has not mentioned the scandal directly, though he did say last month that public officials must “rediscover their spiritual and moral roots.”

The Vatican’s criticism will be widely interpreted as a blow to Berlusconi, whose conservative coalition had gained the church’s favour thanks to its pro-church positions on social issues.

Still, Berlusconi has so far survived a scandal that would have forced most European leaders to step down. He insists he will finish his term, which ends in 2013.

The premier has improved his parliamentary majority, which was eroded after a split with a longtime ally, Gianfranco Fini, who commands a few dozen parliamentarians.

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