The pope appeared to scold Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi today over a sex scandal involving a 17-year-old prostitute, preaching that Italian public officials need to "offer a good example."
It was the second time in recent days that the Vatican expressed its displeasure over the scandal that has dominated Italian news for weeks.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's No. 2, said Thursday that the church was following the Berlusconi investigation closely and stressed his desire for a "more robust morality, a sense of justice and legality," especially for those who serve the public.
Pope Benedict XVI added his voice today during an audience with Rome's police officers. He called on public officials to "rediscover their spiritual and moral roots."
"The singular vocation that the city of Rome requires today of you who are public officials is to offer a good example of the positive and useful interaction between a healthy lay status and the Christian faith," said the pontiff.
The criticism comes as Berlusconi is under investigation for allegedly paying a 17-year-old girl for sex and using his office to cover up the illegal activity. Berlusconi's extravagant lifestyle and love of beautiful woman is well known and prosecutors said that during parties at his Milan estate the Italian premier had sex with multiple prostitutes.
Tale of the Tape -- Wiretapped Conversations Go Public
Salacious wiretapped conversations from party participants, published this week in Italian newspapers, paint a picture of parties fit more for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner than a head of state. The conversations describe a villa with topless girls, who on at least one occasion were offered nurse and police uniforms to wear.
The 74-year-old Berlusconi denies the allegations and has come out forcefully refuting the claims. In two video recordings and an audio monologue he meticulously counters the prosecutors' and claims they are politically motivated.
In one wiretapped conversation, the teen prostitute, Karima el-Mahroug -- better known as Ruby the Heart Stealer -- is quoted saying that she asked Berlusconi for 5 million euros in exchange for her silence.
Ruby, now 18, has since been interviewed on a television station that is owned by Berlusconi and claims that she never had sex with Berlusconi or tried to blackmail him.
Pope Voices His Opinion in Berlusconi Sex Scandal
"I could do something exaggerated, but I could never arrive at a statement like that," said Ruby. She does admit accepting 7,000 euros from Berlusconi, but insists he was only helping her financially.
Opposition leaders in Italy have demanded Berlusconi's resignation and even among his allies there is talk of calling early elections. Berlusconi, persistently defiant, says he is not going anywhere and that he would be happy to testify as long as the judges are unbiased.
"I think Italians will draw the line when it comes to young girls taking part in orgies with 70-year-old men," Newsweek's Barbie Latza Nadeau said.
More than 2,000 Italian women have signed an online petition as part of a campaign, entitled "Basta!" or "Enough!" organized by the leftist newspaper L'Unita.
The campaign is similar to the "I'm not at your disposal" campaign created by the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica in response to what was viewed as a Berlusconi insult to opposition politician Rosy Bindi and women in general. When pressed by Bindi, the prime minister replied, "I recognise you are increasingly more beautiful than you are intelligent."
Bindi, 58, replied: "I am not one of the women at your disposal, Prime Minister."
Berlusconi still has his admirers, even if its only his tenacity they admire.
"Berlusconi is like one of those mythological figures in Greek myth," said Beppe Severgnini, author of "Berlusconi Explained." "You can never say he is politically dead, so he'll go with a bang, but he'll go fighting."
A leader who is no stranger to scandal, now just hopes this isn't the fight that knocks him out.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.