ROME (Reuters) - The editor of a leading Italian Catholic newspaper which criticized Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi quit on Thursday in a row that has seriously strained relations between the Vatican and the Italian government.
Dino Boffo, editor of Avvenire — the Italian Bishops Conference’s daily — resigned after another newspaper, owned by Berlusconi’s family, attacked him over his private life.
Il Giornale reported last week that Boffo — whose paper has been critical of Berlusconi’s private life — had accepted a plea bargain and paid a fine in 2004 after being accused of harassing a woman.
It said Boffo had a homosexual relationship with the woman’s partner, and called him a hypocritical moralist who should not criticize Berlusconi’s flamboyant lifestyle because he had sexual skeletons in his own closet.
Boffo, one of the most influential Catholic opinion makers and editor of Avvenire for 15 years, denied the report and said the woman was harassed by someone else using his cellphone.
“For seven days my name has been at the center of a storm of gigantic proportions,” Boffo said in a letter to the head of the Italian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco.
“I cannot accept that a war of words that is upsetting my family and increasingly startling Italians ... keeps developing around my name for days to come,” he said.
The paper’s attack on Boffo prompted the Vatican to call off a dinner that Berlusconi and Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone were due to attend last Friday.
Bertone, along with many Church officials and party leaders across the political spectrum, expressed his solidarity with Boffo, accusing Il Giornale of mud-slinging and playing dirty tricks for political reasons.
Boffo thanked the Church for its support but said his resignation was irrevocable. “The Church has better things to do than strenuously defend one person, even if unfairly targeted,” he said.
Prosecutors in the harassment case against Boffo denied that any court document contained references to his sex life.
But they said they did not investigate further the possibility of a third person using Boffo’s cellphone without his permission because they did not think it was credible.
Boffo said in his letter on Thursday that “it was now clear the sexual scandal initially used against me was a colossal fictional set-up which was diabolically engineered.”
The row, which has been front-page news in Italy for a week, appears to have severely damaged ties between the Vatican and Berlusconi’s conservative government.
It has also poisoned an already charged political climate, with rival newspapers exchanging vitriolic and often very personal attacks on a daily basis.
Berlusconi is going through a divorce and has been at the center of media attention in Italy over the nature of his relationship with an aspiring 18-year-old model and allegations that he spent a night with a call-girl in his Rome residence.
He has acknowledged he is “no saint” but says he has never done anything improper, accusing left-wing media of mounting a smear campaign against him.
His lawyer said last week that Berlusconi had filed lawsuits against news publications in Italy, France and Spain for libel over their coverage of his private life.
Editing by Tim Pearce