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Italy:Catholic church calls for 'clarity' from Berlusconi over latest escort scandal

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Rome, 18 Jan. (AKI) - The Catholic Church in Italy on Tuesday said prime minister Silvio Berlusconi should shed light on charges facing him in a widening sex scandal allegedly involving young women who had sex with the premier in exchange for cash and gifts.

Berlusconi is alleged to have slept with at least one underage girl, a teenage Moroccan nightclub dancer who was 17 at the time. Although prostitution is not a crime in Italy, engaging in prostitution with minors or exploiting them is.

"Necessary clarity," demanded the headline of a front-page editorial of Avvenire, a daily newspaper owned by Italy's Catholic Bishops Conference.

About "the umpteenth judicial-political scandal," raging against the premier "there is but one certainty: the need to swiftly offer clarity," said SIR, a news-agency also linked to Italy's bishops.

The call came a day after prosecutors in Milan submitted to parliament documents containing alleged evidence that Berlusconi financially supported and slept with a "significant number" of prostitutes.

Those named in the investigation include Moroccan teenage belly dancer Karima El Mahroug, also known by her stage name Ruby.

The prosecutors have asked the parliament for permission to search Berlusconi's officies in connection with the probe and also want to question him this month.

The documents also detailed alleged "abuse of office" by Berlusconi when he intervened on behalf of El Mahroug, while she was being held by police in Milan in connection with theft in May 2010.

While abuse of power by the premier "is the most serious offence from the point of view of penal consequences," that of underage prostitution "is morally downright intolerable," wrote Avvenire editor Marco Tarquinio.

He stressed how the Catholic church has played a major role in denouncing prostitution in Italy - including the exploitation of foreign women and girls.

Berlusconi has in past repeatedly asserted that his conservative People of Freedom party upholds traditional family values and Italy's Catholic traditions.

Tarquinio questioned whether the premier's alleged actions were in line with a September 2010 call made by the head of Italy's bishops. At the time, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco said that for those holding positions of responsibility in government and elsewhere, "good behaviour is inseparable from one's role".

"A tornado has struck not only Italy's main political leader and a group of his friends ... but the international image of our country as well as discussions between parents and children, colleagues and even between strangers in the street," Tarquinio wrote.

In a televised address Sunday, billionaire media mogul Berlusconi rejected prosecutors' allegations that he exploited El Mahroug as "absurd",

He claimed he had had an (unnamed) steady girlfriend for the past 18 months who had been at formal dinners he hosted at his villa near Milan, where he met El Mahroug and other women.

El Mahroug has denied in interview she had sexual relations with Berlusconi but appeared to give a different version of events in intercepted phone calls , where she allegedly said she had asked the premier for five million euros not to talk.

The judicial probe has also targeted three members of Berlusconi's entourage including his former dental hygienist, now a councillor the for Lombardy region, Nicole Minetti, who are suspected of abetting prostitution.

In their request to parliament, prosecutors also named nine other women, who Berlusconi allegedly housed in rent-free apartments in his Milano2 suburb and gave cash payments and gifts, allegedly in exchange for sex.

Berlusconi has been embroiled in a series of sex scandals and has admitted he is "no saint" and has repeatedly denied ever paying a women for sex.

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