ROME The Vatican on Thursday finally weighed in on the latest sex scandal shaking the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, saying Italian politicians must show "robust morality."
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state and second only to Pope Benedict in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, said the Vatican was "particularly worried" about the impact the scandal was having on Italy.
Bertone, speaking on the sidelines of a church event, was asked about an investigation of Berlusconi by magistrates who suspect he paid a 17-year-old prostitute and other women for sex at parties in his villa near Milan.
"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," he said.
While editorials in Italian Catholic publications have expressed concern over what has emerged from the investigation so far, Bertone's remarks were significant because the Vatican still holds enormous political influence in Italy.
Berlusconi, a 74-year-old billionaire media mogul, has been under increasing pressure to resign since magistrates in Milan accused him of paying for sex with a 17-year-old nightclub dancer who goes by the stage name "Ruby Heartstealer."
He denies all accusations against him, saying the investigation is the latest attempt by what he calls leftist magistrates to destroy his political career.
While the Vatican has clearly been irked by Berlusconi's various sex scandals over the past two years, it has until now held its fire because many in the church hierarchy feel more comfortable with a conservative government at Italy's helm.
Bertone's comments indicated that the latest scandal was too much.
Italian newspapers have been full of reports of parties at Berlusconi's villa attended by young starlets who want to break into show business.
Ruby says she received 7,000 euros ($9,390) from Berlusconi after attending one of his parties, but had not slept with him.
Italian media have published leaks of transcripts of wiretaps in which Ruby, a Moroccan, says she asked Berlusconi for 5 million euros in exchange for her silence. She denies this.
Though Berlusconi has seen off a series of sex scandals, his public image has taken a beating with the Ruby investigation and the publication of phone transcripts describing kinky parties at his house with showgirls in, among other things, nurse uniforms.
Bertone said the Vatican was worried about the effects that reports of such behavior was having on families, young people and future generations.
He said Italians wanted to see "exemplary behavior" from their politicians, who he said should be concerned, above all, "with the problems that weigh on Italian society."
Earlier this week, the Vatican newspaper 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.
On Wednesday Berlusconi, in his latest broadside against magistrates, said he would propose new laws to prevent them from pursuing elected officials.
Magistrates have summoned Berlusconi for questioning on the case but he has refused, saying they were biased and did not have the right to preside over the case.
The latest scandal comes at a particularly difficult time for Berlusconi, who narrowly scraped through a confidence vote last month and lost automatic immunity from prosecution after a top court ruling last week.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)