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Pope meets premier’s aide amid scandal fallout

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's top aide met with Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday amid continuing fallout over scandals that have strained ties between Italy's government and the Catholic Church.
Image: Silvio Berlusconi, Pope Benedict XVI, Gianni Letta
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, left, listens to Pope Benedict XVI, center, during their  meeting at the Vatican on June 6, 2008. At right is Berlusconi's adviser Gianni Letta. Letta met with the pope Sunday, amid continuing fallout over scandals that have strained ties between Italy's government and Catholic Church. Alessandro Bianchi / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's top aide met with Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday amid continuing fallout over scandals that have strained ties between Italy's government and the Catholic Church.

Berlusconi adviser Gianni Letta pronounced relations were "solid" after meeting briefly with the pontiff during a visit by the pope to Viterbo, north of Rome.

"My smile says it all. I'm happy and serene," Letta said, according to the ANSA and Apcom news agencies, although he added that there was always work to be done to "further strengthen" relations.

Ties between the government and church, which are politically important in the largely Roman Catholic Italy, have been in a tailspin recently. Catholic publications have openly criticized Berlusconi for his dalliances with young women and Vatican officials have criticized the conservative government for its tough anti-immigration policy.

Tit-for-tat retribution
In what was largely seen as tit-for-tat retribution, a Berlusconi family newspaper last week accused the editor of the country's pre-eminent Catholic newspaper of being involved in a scandal.

The editor, Dino Boffo, professed his innocence. But he resigned Thursday as head of Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishop's Conference, saying he was doing so for his family and the church.

Last week, Il Giornale, which is owned by Berlusconi's brother, claimed that Boffo had been fined in a plea-bargain several years ago for making harassing calls to the wife of a man in whom he was purportedly interested. It accused him of hypocrisy for scrutinizing Berlusconi's private life.

Boffo acknowledged being fined in the case but said someone else had used his cell phone to make the calls. Prosecutors maintain Boffo made the calls, but have denied there was a gay angle to the case. But Boffo has insisted that the full court file remain sealed.

Model: I'm not cause of divorce
Il Giornale published the article after Boffo's Avvenire called on Berlusconi to answer questions about revelations that women had been paid to attend parties at the premier's residences and that a high-class prostitute had once spent the night with him.

The revelations were sparked by the announcement in the spring by Berlusconi's wife that she was divorcing him, citing his presence at the 18th-birthday party of a Naples model.

Berlusconi, 72, has denounced what he says is a media smear campaign against him and has sued two left-wing dailies and several other European publications for libel. He has denied ever paying anyone for sex and says there was nothing "spicy" in his relations with the model, Noemi Letizia.

In an interview aired Sunday on Sky TG24, Letizia said Berlusconi's wife should know better than to think she played any role in the end of their marriage.

"Everyone can see I am not the reason for the divorce," said Letizia, who was interviewed in a garden and on a motorboat. "How can an 18-year-old's birthday party ruin a marriage? If this is the case, what kind of marriage could it be?"

Speaking in Italian and an occasional phrase in English, Letizia said she had actually enjoyed the notoriety that the scandal had caused and that she hoped it would help her with her dream to go to the U.S. and become an actress.

Support among Catholics down
Despite the monthslong scandal, Berlusconi's coalition appears solid, although his support among Catholics had slipped slightly, according to an Ipsos survey published Sunday in Corriere della Sera. The poll of 800 people said Berlusconi remained popular among 50 percent of practicing Catholics, compared to 55 percent in April before the scandal broke. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Italian newspapers have focused on how the scandal has laid bare the divisions between the Italian bishops and the Vatican over who was responsible for cultivating relations with the Italian political establishment.

During Pope John Paul II's pontificate, the head of Italy's bishop's conference was in charge. Under Benedict, though, the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has asserted his authority, the newspapers said.

Vittorio Messori, longtime Vatican watcher and commentator, wrote in Corriere that Bertone was merely enforcing Benedict's long-sought ideal of "clerical federalism" — the centralized authority of the Vatican over bishops worldwide.

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