Italian government shell-shocked by Catholic bishop’s sex scandal attack

September 27, 2011

(Italian Bishops Conference head Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (L) at the Vatican April 1, 2009 and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome May 5, 2009/Max Rossi)

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government appeared to be in a state of denial and shell-shock on Tuesday after Italy’s top Roman Catholic bishop issued a blistering attack against the country’s rulers. Political sources said Berlusconi was left “stunned and saddened” by a speech on Monday by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, who said Italy needed to “purify the air” contaminated by licentious behaviour, scandal and corruption.

Bagnasco, who stopped just short of asking Berlusconi to resign, painted a damning picture of a ruling class that was more concerned with its survival than the good of the people. “Everyone knew the blow was coming but no-one expected it to be so brutally clear,” said Alberto Bobbio, a writer for Italy’s influential Catholic weekly, Famiglia Cristiana (Christian Family).

The Church, which once saw Berlusconi as a bulwark against the left, was the latest institution to pull the plug on the embattled prime minister. In recent weeks Berlusconi has faced damning criticism and more or less open calls to resign from pillars of the Italian establishment including employers group Confindustria, the head of auto giant Fiat and newspapers including Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most authoritative daily.”

“It’s one more nail in the coffin,” said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome. “When and if Berlusconi stands for office again, the bishops’ message is clear: don’t vote for him”.

The speech by Bagnasco, president of the country’s bishops conference, was splashed on the front pages of all Italian newspapers on Tuesday with unequivocal headlines such as that in La Stampa: “The bishops stick it to Berlusconi”.

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