Berlusconi allies work to patch up church ties

Stephen James Johnson

From the Associated Press

ROME – Allies of the Italian government have pledged to patch up ties with the Catholic church, after a newspaper in Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s media family attacked a Catholic editor who had demanded he answer allegations in a sex scandal over young women.

Lawmaker Fabrizio Cicchitto, a leader in Berlusconi’s Freedom People party, told Sky TG24 TV Sunday it would be the conservative coalition‘s “aim and task to work hard so that there are no lacerations or fractures in relations between the government and the Catholic church.”

Support from Catholic voters is considered crucial for any Italian government to come to power, and good ties with the Vatican are courted by many politicians.

Umberto Bossi, whose Northern League party is the lynchpin of the 15-month-old government, told reporters on Saturday he would go to the Vatican to personally try to shore up ties.

The apparent fraying in relations centers on the scandal that has swirled around Berlusconi since his wife announced this year she was divorcing him for what she said was his “infatuation” with young women. Allegations have included that women were paid to attend parties at his Sardinian villa, while a high-class prostitute said she spent a night with him at his Rome residence.

Berlusconi has denied paying women for sex, and dismisses the scandal as a plot by left-leaning media.

But many, including the daily newspaper Avvenire of Italy’s Catholic Bishops Conference, have demanded more answers from the 72-year-old conservative billionaire media mogul.

On Friday, Milan daily Il Giornale, which is owned by Berlusconi’s family, alleged the Catholic paper’s chief editor had a homosexual scandal in his past. The paper alleged that Dino Boffo had been fined several years ago for harassing the wife of a man in whom he was purportedly interested.

Later that day, the premier scrapped his planned participation in a centuries-old Catholic pardon-seeking ceremony in the earthquake-struck town of L’Aquila, after the Vatican called off his dinner there with Pope Benedict XVI‘s top aide, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Berlusconi’s cancellation was widely seen as done out of embarrassment for the Milan paper’s report. Many had viewed his planned participation in the ceremony for pardoning sins as a public relations stroke to boost his popularity with Catholics and his standing with the Vatican.

Boffo denied the allegations against him in an editorial on Sunday.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the bishops conference, called Il Giornale’s allegations “disgusting,” and expressed “esteem” for Boffo.

The Vatican has not commented directly about Il Giornale’s report, but its newspaper L’Osservatore Romano carried the bishops conference’s statement professing “full trust” in Boffo.

Berlusconi on Sunday sought to distance himself from the flap, insisting he had had no contact with Il Giornale’s editor over the anti-Boffo article, Italian media reported.

The center-left opposition was left in tatters after Berlusconi swept to his third term as premier in spring 2008 elections, and it is unclear how much political capital it can make of the scandal involving the premier. Italians tend to view politicians’ private lives as none of their business.