ROME — As opposition politicians stepped up calls for his resignation, an influential Italian Catholic newspaper said Tuesday that the prostitution probe into Premier Silvio Berlusconi's encounters with a Moroccan teenager was like a "devastating tornado."
Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, said "the mere idea that a man who sits atop Italian institutions is implicated in stories of prostitution — worse yet, prostitution of a minor — is hurtful and upsetting."
In a front-page editorial, Avvenire said the probe by Milan prosecutors was like a "devastating tornado that is beating down not just on the Italian leader and a group of his friends and acquaintances, but on our country's international image."
Milan prosecutors are investigating Berlusconi, 74, on suspicion he paid for sex with the Moroccan girl, a nightclub dancer who was a minor at the time of the alleged encounters, between February and May. It also emerged Tuesday that they were looking into whether he paid to have sex with several other young women.
The nightclub dancer, Karima El Mahroug, nicknamed "Ruby the Heartstealer," turned 18 in November. Paying for sex with a prostitute below the age of 18 is a crime in Italy.
The prosecutors were also investigating if Berlusconi abused his powers to win the release of Mahroug in May from police custody, where she was held for theft.
Berlusconi, who has dismissed the allegations as absurd, says he never paid for sex and has been in a stable relationship since separating from his second wife, who left him in a blaze of publicity in 2009, accusing him of "frequenting minors."
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In a video message shown on Italian TV several days ago, Berlusconi said the allegations were "completely groundless and even laughable."
He maintained he was the victim of a persecution orchestrated by left-leaning prosecutors intent on ousting him.
Berlusconi's conservative coalition has sided with the Italian Catholic church on issues including right-to-life and the protection of traditional family values.
But several scandals engulfing the premier over the past 18 months, amid allegations of wild parties and encounters with prostitutes, have strained relations.
Avvenire said Tuesday that public officials must have "a measure of sobriety and respect for oneself, all others and the office they held."
In another sign of unease, SIR, the Italian bishops' news agency, called for "prompt answers" to the Milan prosecutors' questions.
Also under investigation are a former showgirl who is now a provincial government official from Berlusconi's party; a well-known journalist for one of Berlusconi's TV channels and longtime friend; and a talent agent for entertainment programs.
The prosecutors allege the three helped procure and handle the prostitutes.
Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, led the latest chorus of calls for Berlusconi's resignation after a report by magistrates that was sent to parliament said a "significant" number of young women had prostituted themselves with Berlusconi at his homes.
"Since Berlusconi's private life seems to be so intense, he should return to it," Bersani said.
'Bunga bunga' parties
The conservative prime minister has successfully seen off a series of sex scandals in recent years. But the latest comes at a difficult time as he no longer enjoys a secure parliamentary majority following a split with former ally Gianfranco Fini.
Berlusconi narrowly scraped through a confidence vote last month and last week Italy's top court struck down part of a law that gave him immunity from prosecution.
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Italian media had a field day reporting leaked transcripts of phone conversations between some of the women who attended parties at Berlusconi's villa near Milan, described as "bunga bunga" parties in reference to lewd activity.
The transcripts, cited by Italian media, quote El Mahroug saying that she had asked Berlusconi for hush money and was told by the prime minister that she would receive "as much money as you want" if she hid everything.
In another reported conversation, one of the women refers to Berlusconi's residence as a "whore house."
The transcripts are part of a 385-page dossier detailing the investigation into Berlusconi's alleged activities, which was sent by prosecutors to the lower house of parliament to justify their request to search the office of a Berlusconi associate they believe handled the payments to the women.
Opposition politicians said the scale of the allegations and the sordid details of the parties made Berlusconi's position untenable and badly hurt Italy's international image.
"Not even the great poet Dante, when he portrayed the Inferno, got this far," said Leoluca Orlando, a spokesman for the small Italy of Values opposition party.
"Prostitution, minors, abuse of power: it's stuff that makes you sick," said Oliviero Diliberto of the Left Federation. "Berlusconi cannot stay on one more minute. He is at risk of blackmail and as such cannot remain as prime minister."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.