Senior Italian bishop criticises Berlusconi

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, reads his message during a meeting in Ancona, Italy, 24 January 2011 Image copyright AP
Image caption Cardinal Bagnasco did not name Mr Berlusconi but it was clear who he was criticising

The president of the Italian Bishops' Conference has strongly criticised Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is embroiled in a sex scandal.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco said that political leaders who behave immorally pollute the country's future.

Prosecutors have accused the prime minister of paying for sex with prostitutes, allegedly including an under-age dancer.

Mr Berlusconi denies he has done anything wrong.

He has refused to appear before prosecutors for questioning, and on Monday Ansa news agency reported that his lawyers had filed court documents defending him from the accusations.

The BBC's David Willey, in Rome, said the Catholic Church had been reluctant to openly criticise the prime minister because the hierarchy did not want to stand accused of fomenting further political instability.

Morals questioned

But last week the man seen as number two at the Vatican, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, called for a more "robust morality" and legality among public officials.

A day later Pope Benedict XVI deplored the current weakening of public morals.

Cardinal Bagnasco is head of the Italian bishops' conference which in theory operates independently from the Vatican, whose focus is more upon the Church's international role and responsibilities.

"Whoever accepts a public position must understand the sobriety, personal discipline, sense of measure and honour that come with it," he told a meeting of the conference in Ancona.

Although he did not name Mr Berlusconi, the cardinal had already announced he would address the issue on Monday, and it was clear who he was talking about.

Our correspondent in Rome says the cardinal also virtually accused Mr Berlusconi of helping to promote a false model of success - based, he said, on cunning, social climbing, showing off and selling oneself.

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