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Berlusconi counts his blessings

February 18, 2011

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: February 18 2011

In a moment of diplomatic ballet between Silvio Berlusconi and the Vatican, each poised in the midst of separate sex scandals, lavish church-state celebrations took place on Friday in the Palazzo Borrominia before a painting of Saint Lucia, a fourth century virgin saved by God from defilement in a brothel.

The irony was not lost on the Italian media as the prime minister used the ceremonies with Roman Catholicism’s top clerics to stage a comeback at the end of a week in which some had written off his political career.

Aides to Mr Berlusconi expected neither a blessing nor indulgence, but coming just four days after he was ordered to stand trial on charges relating to prostitution and abuse of office, a shaking of hands with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s number two, carried enormous weight.

The 74-year-old billionaire says he is a “sinner”, but denies paying a 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer for sex and covering up their relationship by putting pressure on a Milan police chief to free her from detention last May.

The trial, set to start on April 6, could drag on for months or years as defence lawyers prepare to challenge the competency of the Milan court and protect the prime minister in parliament.

Mr Berlusconi has lost crucial support among grassroots Catholic voters as descriptions of wild parties with naked prostitutes have been splashed across the media daily – all denied by the prime minister. A poll of readers of Christian Family, Italy’s most-read weekly, found 73 per cent want him to resign.

But public criticism of Mr Berlusconi from the Vatican and the Italian church has been very cautious. On the one hand, the clerical establishment is sensitive to accusations of hypocrisy and cover-up in the wake of the paedophile priest scandals sweeping the world. More importantly, the church sees in Mr Berlusconi a useful ally when it comes to legislation on right to life issues – and money.

An example is a government bill before parliament that includes a €1 ($1.36) rise in the tax on cinema tickets. Church-owned cinemas, popular with families, are exempted. “The church has an enormous influence on politics still,” says Italo Bocchino, a lawmaker who defected from Mr Berlusconi’s party last year. “If the church had said Berlusconi was incompatible with governing, he would have fallen. But they didn’t.”

At Friday’s ceremony marking the 82nd anniversary of the signing of the Lateran pacts between Italy and the Vatican, Mr Berlusconi’s delegation included figures known for their closeness to the church, such as Angelino Alfano, 40, the justice minister seen widely as a future leader.

“It is diplomacy. You take everything you can,” said Andrea Gagliarducci, a Catholic reporter, on the Vatican’s uneasy embrace of Mr Berlusconi. “You make agreements even with people you don’t trust,” he added, alluding to the 1929 pacts signed by the Vatican with Benito Mussolini.

Vatican disapproval of Mr Berlusconi’s personal conduct was expressed in Cardinal Bertone’s decision to decline a one-to-one meeting, however.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi meet at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See on the occasion of the 1929 Patti Lateranensi anniversary, in Rome
Seats of power: Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco and Silvio Berlusconi at the 82nd anniversary of the signing of Lateran pacts between Italy and the Vatican

The church’s approach to Mr Berlusconi has been compared in Machiavellian terms with that taken by US administrations, as revealed in cables released by WikiLeaks this week.

Summing up his term in Rome, Ronald Spogli, the departing US ambassador, described Italy two years ago as being in “slow but real economic decline”.

He skewered Mr Berlusconi for his gaffes, lack of strategic vision, failure to address chronic economic problems and endemic corruption, and “perceived willingness to put personal interests above those of the state”.

But the US should not denigrate Mr Berlusconi, the ambassador advised, noting that Italy provided “important strategic dividends” in hosting critical US military bases and supporting operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In a further demonstration of Mr Berlusconi’s indispensability this week, several parliamentarians returned to his ranks after abandoning the ruling coalition last year.

In vain, Gianfranco Fini, once an ally but now leader of the breakaway Future and Liberty party, said Mr Berlusconi was using his “financial and media” powers to “seduce” them.

Mr Berlusconi reportedly told a cabinet meeting on Friday: “They said I was finished. But instead …”

Better the devil you know: what they think of the prime minister

“His frequent verbal gaffes and poor choice of words have offended nearly every demographic in Italy and many EU leaders … The combination of Italy’s economic decline and political idiosyncrasies have caused many European leaders to denigrate the contributions of Berlusconi and Italy. We should not. We should recognise that a long-term engagement with Italy and its leaders will provide us important strategic dividends now and in the future.” Ronald Spogli, former US ambassador to Rome, writing about Mr Berlusconi in February 2009 (source: WikiLeaks)

“In moments of great difficulty, everyone must assume their own responsibilities for the good of the country.” Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, Italy’s most senior cleric, speaking after the prime minister was ordered to stand trial over Rubygate, gives him a mild – yet still ambiguous warning – that he must behave appropriately

“I doubly condemn [his] whore-ocracy, Putinism, devastation of parliamentary democracy … Berlusconi is totally incapable of even understanding the damage he is doing to the country with his private behaviour … Why have I done it? to gain time, to avoid early elections.” Paolo Guzzanti, MP, on his quitting the opposition to support Mr Berlusconi

“Berlusconi represented an opportunity and that is why the League did not break our pact. But we do politics, not bunga-bunga. If it is down to survival, we can look elsewhere.” Enrico Salerani, an official for the Northern League

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