Rome -- One of Italy's most well-known priests, 82-year-old Pietro Gelmini, is being investigated for sexually abusing drug addicted young men treated at his charity rehabilitation centre, the priest's spokesman said on Friday.
Gelmini, a respected figure who counts powerful allies in Italian politics, strongly denies any abuse, his spokesman Alessandro Meluzzi told Reuters.
He has also not yet been accused of any crime by prosecutors, who under Italian law are obliged to investigate all reports of illegal activity.
Meluzzi, a former senator, said he believed the accusers were 'four or five' men who were between the ages of 25 and 30 when the supposed abuse took place.
He said they had been kicked out of the centres and a lawyer representing Gelmini said the accusations of abuse were 'fruits of resentment'.
'We're deeply distressed by what's happening,' Meluzzi said.
'Even more upsetting to us is the (risk to Gelmini and his charity) from statements from a small group of youths, who were kicked out of the community, with all of the problems that drug addicted people can have,' he said.
Italy's Church has not suffered sexual abuse scandals like the ones seen in countries including the United States, where the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached a record $660 million settlement last month with victims of sexual abuse.
Gelmini, known most commonly in Italy as 'don Pierino', founded his 'Comunita Incontro' in 1963 and the group has nearly 200 centres in Italy helping drug addicts and the homeless. It also has operations as far away as Bolivia and Thailand.
His work has drawn praise from those in power. When he turned 80 in 2005, then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi flew to his birthday celebration to deliver a speech.
Senior Italian figures rallied to Gelmini's defence on Friday, including Berlusconi's former communications minister Maurizio Gasparri. He called Gelmini 'one of the few heroes of our time'.