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Cardinal joins attack on Berlusconi

Italy's top bishop has rounded on premier Silvio Berlusconi, insisting public officials must control themselves and warning of the damage to the country and its reputation amid a sex scandal.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops' conference, said Italians are fed up with the scandal and its domination of the political scene, and said the matter should be resolved quickly.

"It's easy to foresee that within the collective soul, this could leave profound marks, if not true wounds," Cardinal Bagnasco warned at a meeting of the bishops' decision-making body.

Prosecutors have placed Mr Berlusconi and three associates under investigation, alleging he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl nicknamed Ruby and used his office to cover it up.

He has denied the allegations and accused prosecutors of a politically motivated witch-hunt. Ruby, who is now 18, has denied she had sex with the premier, but has said he gave her money to help her out financially.

Phone tapped conversations of participants at parties - printed in virtually every Italian newspaper - have described Mr Berlusconi's villa as a brothel with topless girls. Mr Berlusconi, meanwhile, has insisted the dinner parties were proper and denied he ever paid for sex.

Despite his aggressive defence, the conservative Mr Berlusconi has come under increasing criticism from the Catholic Church, with the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, referring directly to the probe last week by calling for a more "robust morality" and legality among public officials.

Paying for sex with a prostitute is not a crime in Italy, unless the prostitute is younger than 18.

Mr Berlusconi has not been charged. He has refused so far to appear before prosecutors for questioning, and his lawyers have filed court documents defending him from the accusations.

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