ROME An Italian comic who said Pope Benedict would be punished in hell for the church's treatment of homosexuals was spared possible prosecution on Thursday when the government blocked an investigation against her.
Sabina Guzzanti, one of Italy's most biting political satirists, made the remarks before a cheering crowd of thousands gathered at Rome's Piazza Navona in July.
A Rome prosecutor suspected the comments broke a law protecting the honor and dignity of the leader of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics under a 1929 Italian treaty with the Vatican.
But the treaty, signed by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, required government approval before the investigation could go forward. Justice Minister Angelino Alfano decided to block it.
"I decided not to authorize it, knowing well the stature and capacity of the pope for forgiveness," Alfano told Italian media.
The Vatican said it considered the case closed and added there was no point dredging up the "deplorable" comments in a legal battle.
"The justice minister's decision was wise," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Ansa news agency.
"The Pope's authority is far too superior to be dented (by the comments) and, in his magnanimity, he considers the case closed."
Among the Lateran Treaties that established Vatican City as a sovereign state within Italy, the treaty provided that offences against the pontiff be punished the same way as offences against Italy's president.
Offences against the president can be punished with five years in prison.
The possibility that Guzzanti could be jailed outraged proponents of free speech, both among the opposition centre-left and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative majority.
Guzzanti is famous for her criticisms and impersonations of media mogul Berlusconi and has long complained of media censorship in Italy. Her television show "Raiot" was taken off the air in 2003 after a defamation suit from Berlusconi's broadcaster Mediaset.
Her explicit comments about the pope were widely published by Italian media and posted on the Internet.
(Editing by Robert Hart)