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The Times - April 22, 2010

by Richard Owen

Silvio Berlusconi was accused yesterday of committing sacrilege with the complicity of the Vatican after he was shown on television taking holy communion at a funeral even though he is twice married and is seeking a divorce from his second wife.

Mr Berlusconi, 73, took communion at the funeral in Milan of Raimondo Vianello, a veteran television variety show star.

Vatican officials said this was permissible because Mr Berlusconi, 73, was in the process of divorcing Veronica Lario, his second wife, and was de facto separated from her.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Council for Life, said the Church had not therefore made an exception for him.

However, However Monsignor Giuseppe Casale, the former Bishop of Foggia, said that Mr Berlusconi should refrain from taking communion not only because of his divorce but “because his behaviour is not coherently Christian”, a reference to scandals in his private life involving prostitutes and showgirls.

The ban on divorcees taking communion is the cause of anguish among many rank and file Catholics.

Father Paolo Farinella, a priest in Genoa, said ordinary Catholics would want to know whether they too could now take communion in similar circumstances.

Father Farinella said he had written to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, to protest against the ”scandal” .

“Berlusconi has committed sacrilege, given that he is divorced and is in the process of getting divorced for a second time,” he told the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Ordinary Catholics were scandalised “because it seems the ban on divorced people taking communion is imposed on them but not on the powerful Berlusconi, a man without moral scruples who is corrupt and corrupts others”.

Mr Berlusconi was married in 1965 in a church ceremony to Carla Dall’Oglio, his first wife. They divorced in 1985. However, because he divorced her without obtaining a Vatican annullment, their marriage remains valid in the eyes of the Church.

In 1990 Mr Berlusconi married Ms Lario, an actress who had been his mistress for several years and had three children by him, in a civil ceremony.

In 2008 Mr Berlusconi was heard to ask the local bishop during mass at Porto Rotondo, near his Sardinian villa, when the ban on divorcees from taking communion would be lifted. The bishop replied that this depended on “a higher power than me”.

Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which deals with confessions and the sacraments, said he hoped the Prime Minister had been “in a state of grace” when he took communion at the funeral mass.

Archbishop Girotti said that “formally speaking” Mr Berlusconi could take Communion because he was no longer living with Ms Lario. However, he would have had to be fully absolved of his sins in the confessional.

“The condition of being divorced does not necessarily preclude communion, provided the person in question has not remarried, does not co-habit and has done penance. I hope the Prime Minister was aware of this,” he said.

Ms Lario sued for divorce after Mr Berlusconi attended the 18th birthday party in Naples a year ago of Noemi Letizia, an aspiring lingerie model and showgirl who at the age of 17 had attended a New Year party at Villa Certosa, the Prime MInister’s Sardinian residence.

Ms Lario said she could “not stay with a man who consorts with minors”, adding that he was “not well”. It later emerged that escorts and showgirls had been paid to attend his parties in Rome and Sardinia and in some cases to go to bed with him.

The Vatican however has by and large overlooked this behaviour. Mr Berlusconi’s centre Right government has backed Church policies on issue such as euthanasia and abortion and claims to uphold “Catholic family values”.

This week Mr Berluconi attended a reception at the Italian embassy to the Vatican to mark the fifth anniversay of Pope Benedict XVI’s election, accompanied by Renata Polverini, the centre-Right candidate who in the recent election for governor of Lazio defeated Emma Bonino, the centre-Left candidate and former EU Commissioner, who favours liberal laws on divorce and abortion.

The Church had asked voters to support the candidate who promoted Catholic values.

“We did it, your Eminence!” Mr Berlusconi told Cardinal Bertone at the reception.

He has also sent a message of strong support to the Pope to defend him against accusations that he had helped to cover up clerical sex abuse as Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982 and later as head of doctrine at the Vatican for 24 years.

Mr Berlusconi blamed the scandals on “an unspeakable campign of slander” against the Pope and the Church.

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