ROME – Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday the suggestion by his wife and the Italian media that he had a relationship with an 18-year-old girl was a “lie” and demanded his wife admit she was wrong if their relationship is to survive.

Berlusconi went on a popular, late-night talk show on state-run television to refute the claims of his wife of 19 years, Veronica Lario, who has said she wants to divorce the billionaire media mogul-turned-politician because of his constant flirtations with younger women.

Berlusconi said Lario had “fallen into a trap” and believed lies in the media – and he demanded a public apology.

“I believe that someone who is charged with public functions like the premier can only accept the continuation of a relationship if there’s an admission” that Lario’s accusations were based on lies, “and if she publicly declares she was in error,” he said.

In a statement to the Italian news agency ANSA last week, Lario voiced public outrage over media reports that Berlusconi’s political party was lining up TV showgirls and starlets as European Parliament candidates.

She also lashed out at the premier’s attendance at a young blonde’s 18th birthday party, claiming he had never come to the coming-out parties of his own children.

Berlusconi said any suggestion that he had a relationship with the woman, Noemi Letizia, was a “lie.”

“If there was anything spicy or less than clean in the relationship between the premier and a woman younger than 18, wouldn’t it seem crazy for the premier to go to a public function and be photographed all over the place?” Berlusconi asked on “Porta a Porta.”

Letizia has been quoted as saying she calls Berlusconi “papi” or “Daddy” and has been photographed sporting a gold and diamond necklace the premier reportedly gave her as a birthday gift.

Berlusconi said he ended up at Letizia’s party by chance, because her father wanted to see him and he happened to be in Naples at the time on official business, near the restaurant where the party was under way.

Berlusconi also denied that showgirls were among his party’s European Parliament candidates. But he defended the record of the TV starlets in his Cabinet and in parliament, saying they far outmatched the men.

The very public unraveling of the Berlusconi-Lario marriage has fascinated Italians but greatly distressed the country’s Roman Catholic bishops.

On Tuesday, Avvenire, the newspaper of Italy’s bishops conference, ran a scathing front-page editorial criticizing both Lario and Berlusconi for airing their dirty laundry in public, demanding some “sobriety”- particularly from the premier.

“We know that a man of government will be judged for what he does,” it read. “But the human makings of a leader, his style and the values that fill his life, aren’t indifferent. For this reason, we continue to ask for a premiere who with sobriety knows how to be the mirror of the best parts of the soul of the country.”

Berlusconi deflected the criticism, denying he was losing the support of Catholics as a result of the spat.

“Once the reality is cleared up, there will be an … improvement in relations with the Vatican, which has never had such good ties with an Italian government,” Berlusconi said.

Despite the acrimony, Berlusconi said that all he wanted was a “sea of goodwill” with Lario.

Lario’s attorney, Maria Cristina Morelli, told the ANSA news agency that she planned to work “serenely” and with “maximum correctness” on the separation, while trying to maintain good relations with Berlusconi’s side.

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