Italy bishops attack government over scandals
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's powerful Catholic Church issued a blistering attack on the ruling political class on Monday, saying the country needed to "purify the air" contaminated by licentious behaviour that had sullied its name around the world.
A speech by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco to fellow bishops did not specifically name Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi but he left little doubt he was referring to the sex and corruption scandals that dog Berlusconi and his centre-right government.
"It is mortifying to witness behaviour that not only goes counter to public decorum but is intrinsically sad and hollow," said the head of the Italian Bishops Conference.
Bagnasco said Italians had been left in a state of "dumbfounded astonishment" by a ruling political class that was enmeshed in scandal and preoccupied with self-preservation while the country suffered from an economic crisis.
"The image is one of a country that is estranged, without impulse, as if everyone is waiting for the inevitable," he said.
Until now the Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church have been hesitant in their criticism of the centre-right, fearing that a leftist government could back measures it opposes, such as gay marriage and embryonic stem-stell research.
The political class, Bagnasco said, had a greater responsibility to live a moral life and set a good example because its behaviour had "undeniable effects on culture and education" and influenced the young and impressionable.
Many in the political class were propagating a poisonous culture where success was something that could be attained through connections and short cuts rather than hard work. He called for a radical re-think.
"It's not just a question of doing things differently but of thinking differently. There is a need to purify the air so that new generations, as they grow, are not poisoned," he said.
The Catholic church no longer enjoys the political clout it had years ago but it is still one of the most influential forces in Italian society.
There was no immedite reaction from the government but the centre-left opposition praised the prelate. "Bagnasco put up a clear 'stop sign' for certain lifestyles and abuse of public power that has nothing to do with the common good," said Rosy Bindi, president of the opposition Democratic Party.
NEW SCANDALS FOR BERLUSCONI
Berlusconi is facing four separate trials on corruption and charges of paying for sex with a minor. He has been engulfed by a new sex scandal just as financial troubles have raised fears that the Italian economy could suffer a Greek-style debt crisis.
Wire-tapped conversations published by Italian newspapers have quoted Berlusconi as boasting of "doing eight girls" in one night and organising trysts with prostitutes at his private residences. He was also quoted as saying that, with all his sexual activity, he was only prime minister "in my spare time."
The cardinal spoke of "licentious behaviour and improper relations that damage society."
"People are looking at the protagonists of public life with consternation and the image of the country abroad has been dangerously weakened," he said.
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.
Bagnasco read his speech at a previously scheduled conference four days after Pope Benedict said Italy badly needed "ethical renewal," a phrase the Italian media saw as a green light for Bagnasco to take the gloves off in Monday's speech.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Matthew Jones)
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