ROME Reports that 30 women attended 18 parties hosted by Silvio Berlusconi and some were paid to have sex with guests have added to the Italian leader's problems at a time of speculation that his grip on power may be weakening.
The 72-year-old prime minister is already being forced to counter talk that his 15-year-old domination of Italian politics could be brought to an end by the sex scandals besetting him since May, which have angered the powerful Catholic Church.
A cabinet source said there was no comment on the reports on Wednesday in Corriere della Sera and La Stampa -- two respected Italian dailies -- suggesting Berlusconi indulged his taste for young women on a larger scale than hitherto suspected.
His lawyer was not immediately available for comment.
The conservative leader, whose wife triggered the crisis in May by seeking divorce and accusing him of "frequenting minors" such as a teenage girl in Naples, denies that he paid for sex. His lawyer famously said Berlusconi was only "the end user."
Corriere and La Stampa cited newly-leaked evidence from a court case in Bari, southern Italy, concerning the activities of businessman Gianpaolo Tarantini.
They said women were paid expenses to attend the parties and 1,000 euros extra "for sexual services," naming public figures among the guests and a reality-TV stars among the paid escorts.
"I introduced them as my friends and kept quiet that I was sometimes paying them," Tarantini was quoted as saying.
END OF AN ERA?
The Bari case has already revealed that prostitute Patrizia D'Addario was paid by Tarantini to sleep with Berlusconi. She taped explicit conversations on her cellphone and went public when promises like a European Parliament seat went unfulfilled.
Berlusconi is suing newspapers in Italy and Europe for libel in their coverage of the scandals and for publishing pictures of his guests cavorting naked. Corriere and La Stampa are not know to be on the list, topped by left-leaning La Repubblica.
The scandals have cost Berlusconi some support among Roman Catholic voters. While he talks of approval ratings of nearly 70 percent, most polls put it nearer 50 percent -- still relatively high in the context of the worst recession since World War Two.
"Since April we have reached a stage where there is a presumption, and not just from the left, that the Berlusconi era is coming to an end," said James Walston, politics professor at the American University of Rome.
The situation has been made more tense by ferocious attacks on Berlusconi's critics and dissenting allies by Il Giornale, a right-wing paper which is run by the premier's own brother.
Its targets include the conservative speaker of parliament Gianfranco Fini, a key ally, who said it was "paradoxical" the prime minister should deny there are problems in the government.
Another ally, Sicilian governor Raffaele Lombardo, said: "There certainly is speculation about the start of his decline linked to the premier's private life."
One question dampening talk of Berlusconi's political demise is the lack of successors, given his domination of the right and the weakness of the center-left opposition.
"Silvio Berlusconi's decline may have begun, as his enemies and some allies speculate. But it is yet to be seen where or when it will happen and, above all, it is not clear who would benefit," wrote Corriere della Sera columnist Massimo Franco.
But some Italians who spoke to Reuters thought it was unlikely the scandals would bring down the prime minister.
"I don't think this will mean the end of Berlusconi and I don't think it would be fair if it did," said Rome resident Giulia Fratelli, reading her newspaper in the city center.
"Unfortunately, I doubt it," said Marisa Spada. "Wealth is the only aim we Italians have and he represents this best."
(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti and Daniel Flynn)