‘No Saint’? Berlusconi’s New Ploy to Win Over Italy’s Catholics, and the Vatican

No Saint? Berlusconis New Ploy to Win Over Italys Catholics, and the Vatican

“I’m no saint.”

Pronounced with a grin at a Wednesday groundbreaking ceremony, Silvio Berlusconi’s one-liner-of-the-week was a masterstroke of political damage control, all’italiano. At least for now.

Embroiled in a months-long sex scandal, with audio tapes leaked this week that appear to confirm his libidinous romps, the Italian Prime Minister’s reference Wednesday to his less-than-holy behavior was a kind of “confession with a wink” that plays to both the strains of Catholicism and Machismo that have long battled for the soul of this country.

The latest installment of the Silvio Show featured a series of leaked audio recordings of his apparent sweet nothings — and some very spicy something — with an admitted high-priced hooker.

Ever since mid-June when Patrizia D’Addario, the call girl from the southern city of Bari, began telling prosecutors and the press about her night in the Prime Minister’s bedroom, Berlusconi had said he can’t remember the pretty 42-year-old blonde, and that he’d never paid for sex.

Then the first of the tapes hit the website of opposition weekly L’Espresso on Monday, and millions of Italians were clicking in to hear an especially velvety version of a voice that sounded just like Berlusconi telling D’Addario to “wait for me in the big bed,” and other intimate exchanges. A portion released Thursday featured the male voice counseling D’Addario to increase her sexual pleasure by masturbating with a “certain frequency.”

With the release of the latest recordings, Berlusconi, 72, who went from a cruise-ship crooner to billionaire television mogul, sensed that it was once again show time. Speaking in Milan to a group of businessmen, he quipped that “there are a lot of beautiful young women around, and the usual entrepreneurs. And you’ve understood that I am no saint,” sparking a round of laughter and applause.

The “Non sono un santo” line, which made banner headlines in all the major dailies on Thursday, bought Berlusconi some breathing room without having to beg for forgiveness. Though it seemed spontaneous, the public acknowledgment of his behavior was most likely a well-constructed way to bow to the Church, while playfully confirming his sexual prowess to his more macho admirers. Indeed, plenty of Italians — particularly men — are drawn to the Prime Minister for his Don Juan ways. Who amongst us, they say, is really a saint

Still, if the playboy Prime Minister hopes to maintain his grip on power, he knows he has to avoid the risk of a head-on collision with old-fashioned Catholic values, and the Vatican just across the river from his Rome office. L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, has repeatedly lashed out over the past two months at Berlusconi’s alleged peccadilloes. A top bishop denounced the premier’s “libertine” lifestyle. Friday’s edition of Turin-based La Stampa quoted Vatican officials saying they hope Berlusconi’s “no saint” quip is the first step toward a more explicit, and repentant, kind of mea culpa.

Rumors continue that Berlusconi is seeking a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI, currently on vacation in the Italian Alps. Others predict that the Prime Minister might make a pilgrimage to the resting place of the revered Italian saint Padre Pio.

But there is another way Berlusconi could shore up support at the Holy See and reinforce his alliances with Italy’s most actively Catholic politicians. Look for Berlusconi to come out hard against any attempt to expand stem cell research, extend benefits to gay partner, or legalize assisted suicide. It might seem blatant hypocrisy for devout Catholics to deal so intimately with a ribald leader heading toward his second divorce. But remember that there are plenty of other pols — and senior Vatican officials too — who also fall short of sainthood.

Read “Silvio Berlusconi: An Italian Mirror”
See pictures of Berlusconi’s Women on LIFE.com.