ROME — A tabloid tidal wave washed over Italy on Tuesday as newspapers published wiretapped conversations from a nightclub dancer who said she had dallied with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as a minor, but whether it would sweep Berlusconi out to sea was still anyone’s guess.
The wiretaps emerged days after prosecutors opened an investigation into Berlusconi on charges that he compensated Moroccan-born Karima el-Mahroug, nicknamed “Ruby Rubacuori,” or “Ruby Heart-Stealer,” for sex at his villa outside Milan when she was a minor. In wiretaps, Mahroug said she had been attending parties at Berlusconi’s villa since she was 16.
Berlusconi, 74, who denies all wrongdoing and says he did not know Mahroug was a minor, is also accused of helping get her released from police custody when she was detained for theft last spring. Now 18, she said she had asked Berlusconi for 5 million euros, or $6.7 million, to keep quiet, according to wiretaps published Tuesday in the Italian media.
But Mahroug is apparently only a face in the crowd. Prosecutors said this week that “a significant number” of young women had prostituted themselves to the prime minister, obtaining cash or rent-free housing in exchange for sex. In Italy, where a facade of Roman Catholic morality masks a high tolerance for illicit romance, Berlusconi has weathered scandals for years.
But this time, with the prime minister facing possible criminal charges and with wiretaps presenting a picture of a sordid world of orgies and of blackmail by call girls, things are beginning to look different. Berlusconi only narrowly survived two no-confidence votes in mid-December and could be forced to call new elections if any one of the allies in his shaky coalition pulled out.
On Tuesday, the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, expressed “grave concern” over the scandal and called on Berlusconi to offer clarification on the matter, while the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Avvenire, published a rare front-page editorial that decried a crude culture of “power, sex and money,” implicitly criticizing Berlusconi’s behavior, and called prostitution “morally indefensible.”
Last week, Italy’s highest court removed the prime minister’s automatic immunity from prosecution, and he is holding on to his parliamentary majority by a thread.
But it remains to be seen if the government will collapse. On Tuesday, the opposition stepped up calls for Berlusconi to resign, but he can fall only if he loses his parliamentary majority, and for now his party loyalists are sticking with him.
“With Berlusconi, the rules from any other place or government don’t apply,” said Mario Calabresi, the editor of the Turin daily newspaper La Stampa. “It’s hard to know if this will really be the last scandal that makes Berlusconi fall, because for him to fall, someone has to bring him down.”
On Tuesday, Berlusconi said he would not resign. He said he was less the target of a judicial investigation than of “subversive” media attacks.