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updated 1/25/2011 7:16:30 PM ET 2011-01-26T00:16:30

Italy's top bishop issued scathing criticism of Premier Silvio Berlusconi for his role in a sex scandal Monday, insisting that public officials must control themselves and warning of the damage to the country and its reputation.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, said Italians were fed up with the scandal and its domination of the political scene, and said the matter should be resolved quickly.

"It's easy to foresee that within the collective soul, this could leave profound marks, if not true wounds," Bagnasco warned at a meeting of the bishops' decision-making body.

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Prosecutors have placed Berlusconi and three associates under investigation, alleging he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl nicknamed Ruby and used his office to cover it up. Berlusconi has denied the allegations and accused prosecutors of a politically motivated witch hunt. Ruby, who is now 18, has denied she had sex with the premier, but has said he gave her euro 7,000 ($9,400) to help her out financially.

Wiretapped conversations of participants at parties — printed in virtually every Italian newspaper — have described Berlusconi's villa as a brothel with topless girls; Berlusconi, meanwhile, has insisted the dinner parties were perfectly correct and denied ever paid for sex.

Despite his aggressive defense, the conservative Berlusconi has come under increasing criticism from the Catholic Church, with the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, referring directly to the probe last week by calling for a more "robust morality" and legality among public officials.

Pope Benedict XVI issued a similar call a day later, though he didn't cite Berlusconi by name.

Bagnasco also didn't mention the premier's name, but he had said last week that he would address the scandal in his speech Monday and his comments left little room for doubt.

Bagnasco was clearly saddened by news which he said "refer to behavior that is contrary to public decorum and, whether true or presumed, have exposed holes that show a style that is incompatible with sobriety and correctness; meanwhile some ask to what these huge investigations are owed."

He said Italians were fed up with the scandal and the damage it was doing to the country — they are "watching the actors on the public scene with dismay and are breathing obvious moral unease," he said

"We know that democratic life requires a necessary delicate balance, based on the ability of everyone to control themselves," he added. Yet now, there is confusion and disturbance, "a climate of mutual delegitimization."

Paying for sex with a prostitute is not a crime in Italy, unless the prostitute is younger than 18.

Berlusconi has not been charged. He has refused so far to appear before prosecutors for questioning, and on Monday his lawyers filed court documents defending him from the accusations, the ANSA news agency reported.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Feeling the heat, Berlusconi reaches boiling point

  1. Closed captioning of: Feeling the heat, Berlusconi reaches boiling point

    >>> who has been separated from his wife now for almost two years, is faces more allegations that are more sordid day by day . wrongdoing involving young women and possible criminal wrongdoing involving an underaged girl. from milan, the prime minister last night lost his cool.

    >> reporter: he's been called the tough lawn prime minister. a 74-year-old man with a notorious weakness for beautiful, young women . the billionaire media mogul is suspected of paying a 17-year-old belly dancer for sex. abusing his power, allegedly cavorting with showgirls and prostitutes. this showgirl turned dental hygienist turned politician is suspected of recruiting women for him. for weeks, details have leaked. it's like a brothel in there. worse than the papers say. all of which he has coolly denied. then last night -- he phoned in to a tv talk show to berate the host. calling his coverage repugnant despicab despicable. the host called the prime minister an ignorant lout. could this be a sign he's feeling the heat coming from his own party, the vatican? many italians seem amused at worst.

    >> it's his private life , if he gave me 10,000 euros, i'd do it too.

    >> reporter: some of his biggest defenders are the showgirls from the tv station . he's like a second father, generous with a big heart. he gives them gifts and money, but as a friend. his parties are just dinners where girls dance and he sings. he could face criminal charges , even a trial within months. so far, says he's done nothing wrong and refuses to back down. michelle kosinski , nbc news, milan.

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