(ANSA) - Rome, September 7 - Relations between the Italian government and the Catholic Church are ''excellent,'' Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Monday, denying reports of tensions after a Church paper editor who criticised the premier quit alleging a smear campaign by a Berlusconi family daily.
The premier also repeated charges there was a defamatory campaign about his private and political life and claimed most Italians identified with him. Speaking on one of his three TV networks, Berlusconi described reported tensions with the Church over last week's resignation of Dino Boffo, editor of the Italian bishops daily Avvenire, as ''a lie''.
Berlusconi also denied that he had ever planned to see Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone on the day Berlusconi family daily Il Giornale reported Boffo had paid a harassment fine to a woman with whose husband Boffo allegedly had a relationship.
''I never asked for meetings with Bertone,'' the premier said.
Berlusconi was due to attend a traditional Catholic forgiveness ceremony on August 28, the day Il Giornale broke its story on Boffo, accusing the Avvenire editor of double standards in criticising the premier's private life.
His attendance was cancelled hours after Il Giornale hit the press, with a Vatican announcement later confirmed by the premier's office.
Several sources said he would meet Bertone, the Holy See's highest official, after the ceremony in what some observers saw as a bid to calm Catholic worries over allegations on the premier's friendship with a teenage girl and an escort who claimed to have slept with him.
But Berlusconi stressed Monday that relations with the Church had ''always been excellent,'' ruling out the need to see Bertone, then or now.
These ties would be ''consolidated,'' he said, over the coming months with the government continuing to back pro-life moves like a restrictive living will currently going through parliament, sparked by the case of a young woman who was dubbed by some ''Italy's Terri Schiavo''.
Eluana Englaro's case split Italy for years until her death earlier this year, with some churchmen and Catholic politicians claiming she had been murdered.
Englaro, 38, died after 17 years in a permanent vegetative state since a 1992 car crash despite last-minute government efforts to save her with the new legislation.
Her feeding tube was removed according to what her father said were her wishes, a claim pro-life campaigners contested.
Berlusconi told the TV show Monday: ''The defence our government made of certain basic principles...which underpin Catholic doctrine, principles like the defence of human life and the defence of the family, demonstrate the excellence of the relations between the government and the Church''.
Leftwing critics have suggested the premier would step up his government's pursuit of a pro-life agenda to dampen Catholic concerns about his private life.
Critics have claimed the centre-right majority will also fight the recent approval of the so-called 'abortion pill'.
In mid-August Boffo, the Avvenire editor who resigned last week, accused the premier of an ''arrogant'' departure from ''a sober lifestyle''.
A weekend poll in Italy's leading daily Corriere della Sera indicated the premier's popularity among practising Catholics had dropped only 5% from 55% to 50% since the case of aspiring showgirl Noemi Letizia, 18, erupted when the premier's wife Veronia Lario sued for divorce claiming Berlusconi ''frequented minors''.
Berlusconi on Monday said he had his own polls showing a 70% popularity rate for his government among all Italians, about 40% of whom, according to the Corriere poll, could be defined as practising Catholics.
Berlusconi critics claim many Italians are ill-informed about the allegations against the premier because of spotty TV coverage.
As well as controlling his three Mediaset commercial stations, the premier has influence over the three-channel RAI public TV corporation.
The premier claims never to have interfered with their working but two top journalists were blackballed a few years ago after criticism from the premier.
There has also been controversy after an anti-Berlusconi comedienne's show was pulled and, more recently, when both RAI and Mediaset declined to run trailers for a documentary, which premiered at Venice and opened at No.4 in the weekend box-office charts, accusing the premier of creating an alleged 'videocracy' in Italy.
Italian journalists are staging a demonstration in defence of press freedom on September 19 after Berlusconi sued two leftwing dailies, La Repubblica and l'Unita', which have led campaigns on the sex allegations and the premier's alleged promises, first cited by his wife and later attributed to Letizia, to help showgirls enter politics.
On Monday Berlusconi levelled a fresh broadside against the press, claiming there had been a ''ferocious campaign'' against him and alleging that ''90% of newspapers'' were controlled by Communists and progressive Catholics whose ''Poor Italy'', he repeated, claiming the press was trying to install ''a police state'' and that he had been forced to defend himself.
He described protests against his libel suits as ''a joke''.
''Most Italians would like to be like me and they support my behaviour,'' said the premier.
Observers have suggested many Italians identify with the 72-year-old premier's flamboyant lifestyle and his admission that he is ''no saint''.
The premier has admitted sleeping with escort Patrizia d'Addario but said he didn't know she was a prostitute.
On Monday, Berlusconi claimed most Italians weren't interested in his private life but in the performance of his government and his political integrity.
He repeated a longstanding claim that, as Italy's long-richest and now second-richest man, he was in no danger of falling victim to graft.
''(They know) Silvio Berlusconi doesn't steal,'' he said.
The premier, who has been accused of a conflict of interest and allegedly overseeing laws in favour of himself and his media empire, stressed that ''Italians know Silvio Berlusconi is not stealing and is not using his powers for his personal advantage,'' unlike ''almost all'' his predecessors, ''especially'' on the centre-left.
He also reiterated a charge that the left-wing opposition was allegedly in league with a politically motivated judiciary which has succeeded in bringing him to trial several times but never securing a definitive sentence.
The premier has been convicted in a handful of graft trials but has either been acquitted on appeal or seen charges dropped because of the statute of limitations on fraud, shortened by one of his governments.
A remaining trial has been suspended because of a new law shielding the state's four highest officials from persecution while in office.
The Constitutional Court is set to rule this autumn on the law, which critics claim breaks the constitution's provision for equality before the law.
On Monday's show, Berlusconi accused his opponents of seeking to set up ''a judicial and police state'' from which he said he was protecting his supporters.
The premier accused his rivals of waging a ''subversive campaign'' to bring him down, claimed he had been ''forced'' to issue libel suits to defend his reputation against newspaper reports on his private life.
''Italian aren't stupid, as the Left thinks, and they prefer my government,'' he said, citing in-house polls showing the government's approval rating ''sailing towards 70%''. Despite his influence over most of Italian TV, the premier noted that most Italian newspapers - ''90% in his view - were controlled by ''a Catholic and Catholic-Communist'' minority, terms conservatives sometimes use to describe the main opposition Democratic Party formed by former Communists and mostly liberal Catholics.
Rejecting notions that the alleged scandal had been poorly covered by Italian TV, Berlusconi said: ''I repeat with force, with this news set-up, poor old Italy''.
New bills will lead to an improvement of church-state relations in Italy.