ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who has been embroiled in a sex scandal for months, canceled his planned participation in a Catholic religious service for the remission of sins Friday after his presence was deemed problematic.

Berlusconi was supposed to have attended the annual "Perdonanza," or forgiveness observance, in the earthquake-stricken city of L'Aquila alongside the Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and then attend a dinner with him.

But, less than three hours before the service was to begin, the Vatican announced that the L'Aquila archdiocese had canceled the dinner to avoid "exploiting" the situation. It didn't elaborate, although it said the money for the dinner would instead go to quake victims.

The cancellation gave Berlusconi a face-saving excuse to cancel his trip and avoid the prickly question of whether the twice-married premier would receive a so-called plenary indulgence, an extra spiritual step many faithful seek for remission of sins already forgiven through confession.

Pope Celestine V issued a papal bull, or edict, in 1294 granting a plenary indulgence to anyone who entered L'Aquila's basilica between the nights of Aug. 28 and 29 and was "truly repentant and had confessed."

Each year, thousands of the faithful flock to the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio to participate in a procession and Mass and to take advantage of the indulgence.

According to Vatican rules, though, the faithful must be in the state of grace, have gone to Confession, received Communion and prayed for the pope's intentions to receive the indulgence.

As a divorced and remarried Catholic, Berlusconi isn't supposed to receive Communion. The Catholic Church doesn't permit divorce, and people who remarry and consummate their new marriages are considered to be living in sin, and thus ineligible to receive the Eucharist.

Berlusconi — and numerous other Catholics in his position — have lobbied the Church to change its teachings on the matter, but the Vatican has remained firm.

Berlusconi divorced his first wife and married Veronica Lario in 1990. Lario has announced she wanted to divorce Berlusconi because of his reported dalliances with young women, including an escort. Her accusations have sparked months of tawdry headlines about Berlusconi's personal life.

Berlusconi's presence at the L'Aquila commemoration had also raised eyebrows because he had planned to go with his equal opportunities minister, Mara Carfagna, a former model and TV starlet to whom the premier once professed: "If I weren't married, I'd marry you." Berlusconi later apologized to Lario after she publicly complained.

After the sex scandal broke, Berlusconi denied any improper relationships with women and said he had never paid a woman for sex. But he has admitted he's "no saint" and has reportedly promised to turn over a new leaf.

Since Berlusconi couldn't participate fully in the religious observance, his office designated his right-hand man Gianni Letta, who has not been divorced, to take his place.

While the Vatican itself has remained silent on Berlusconi's personal problems, influential Italian Catholic publications have taken him to task. Famiglia Cristiana, a Catholic weekly distributed in parishes across Italy, said Berlusconi had exceeded the "limits of decency" with his behavior.

And the newspaper of Italy's bishops conference, Avvenire, urged him to respond to the accusations.

On Friday, the left-leaning La Repubblica daily — which has been at the forefront in exposing the scandal — said Berlusconi had filed a euro1 million ($1.4 million) defamation suit. At issue is the newspaper's daily set of 10 questions it wants Berlusconi to answer concerning the scandal, including whether he could assure Italians that he couldn't be blackmailed by any of the women.

Ties between Berlusconi and the Church have been futher damaged by criticism over the conservative government's crackdown on immigration. Italian media had suggested the meeting with Bertone would have given the two sides a chance to smooth over differences.

The religious observance in L'Aquila has taken on particular resonance following the April 6 earthquake, which killed nearly 300 people in L'Aquila and surrounding areas, drove some 50,000 from their homes and leveled entire blocks of buildings. The basilica was severely damaged, with its roof partially caved in.

In addition, this year marks the 800th anniversary of the birth of Celestine, a hermit and saint who was the only pope to have resigned. As a result, Bertone was dispatched to represent the Vatican at the commemoration, and until he canceled, Berlusconi would have been the first head of government to have attended.