Premier Silvio Berlusconi dismissed calls today to resign over his involvement with an underage Moroccan runaway and even created a new uproar by claiming it was better to love beautiful girls than gays.
His comments sparked outrage from gay rights groups and fueled new calls for him to step down.
Opposition politicians have charged that Berlusconi abused his office by calling Milan police in May when the then-17-year-old runaway nicknamed Ruby was detained for alleged theft.
Newspapers have reported that Berlusconi told police that a local party official would take custody of the girl, who had visited Berlusconi's Milan villa on at least one occasion.
Even center-right commentators in Berlusconi's family-owned newspapers have criticised him for intervening in a possible criminal case. Berlusconi's now-estranged ally, Gianfranco Fini, said his antics had embarrassed the country.
But Berlusconi again defended his lifestyle and fondness for young women, telling a trade fair in Milan today it was "better to be passionate about a beautiful girl than a gay."
Gay rights group Arcigay demanded an apology for causing offense to both women and gays.
The premier's comments "represent a dangerous incitement to prejudice and helps legitimise discrimination, injustice and suffering," Arcigay president Paolo Pantane wrote in a letter to Berlusconi's minister for equal opportunity, Mara Carfagna.
In response, Carfagna defended Berlusconi's record on anti-discrimination measures and said he had just been joking.
"(He) absolutely never intended to offend women or homosexuals," she said.
Berlusconi assured supporters today that his government still had a majority and would last the remaining three years of its five-year term. He said early elections would be a disaster for a country grappling with economic crisis.
He contended that the Ruby scandal was whipped up by hostile, deceptive newspapers and again defended his decision to intervene in her case. Ruby was let go by police with no charges after Nicole Minetti, a party official who is also Berlusconi's dental hygienist, took custody of her.
Berlusconi said today he'd do the same thing again. "You will see when this is over that there was nothing more than an act of solidarity," he said.