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Priest acknowledges he went naked with Foley but denies they had sex

Friday, October 20, 2006

ROME -- A priest acknowledged Thursday that he was naked in saunas and went skinny-dipping with Mark Foley decades ago when the former congressman was a boy in Florida, but denied that the two had sex.

The Rev. Anthony Mercieca, 69, speaking by telephone from his home on the Maltese island of Gozo, made his comments after the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an interview in which he described several encounters that he said Foley might perceive as sexually inappropriate. Mercieca said the Florida newspaper report was "exaggerated."

"We were friends and trusted each other as brothers and loved each other as brothers," Mercieca said in Rome. Asked if their association was sexual, the priest replied: "It wasn't."

Among the activities described by Mercieca in the newspaper were massaging the boy in the nude, skinny-dipping together at a secluded lake in Lake Worth, Fla., and being nude in the same room on overnight trips while he was a priest and Foley was a parishioner.

Sarasota Herald-Tribune executive editor Mike Connelly said Thursday the story is accurate, including the reference to a night in which Mercieca said he was in a drug-induced stupor due to a nervous breakdown and couldn't clearly remember what happened.

"The reporter talked to the priest four times yesterday and carefully reviewed his account, especially of the one night," Connelly said. "The story accurately reports what the priest said."

Foley, a 52-year-old Florida Republican, resigned from Congress last month after his sexually explicit e-mails to young male pages surfaced.

His lawyer said shortly afterward that Foley was an alcoholic, gay and had been molested as a boy by a "clergyman." Foley's civil lawyer, Gerald Richman, said the alleged abuser was a Catholic priest whose name he shared with Florida state prosecutors.

Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for the state attorney's office in West Palm Beach, Fla., said an e-mail from Foley's attorney was received Wednesday identifying the alleged abuser. He said the e-mail was being forwarded to the Archdiocese of Miami.

The Archdiocese of Miami said in a statement Thursday evening that it had received the name from the state attorney's office but was waiting for permission from prosecutors to release it publicly.

"It is the intention of the Archdiocese of Miami to fully cooperate with the Palm Beach State Attorney's office and not to interfere with any investigation that they are conducting," the statement said. A telephone call to the Archdiocese was not immediately returned.

Edmondson said earlier in the day that law enforcement involvement at this point had ended.

Dioceses across the United States have been grappling with sex abuse scandals involving clergy and young faithful.

Mercieca had worked at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth in 1967, according to church records. Foley would have been 13 at the time.

Mercieca told the AP that he and Foley would go into saunas naked when he was a priest in Florida and Foley was a parishioner, but he said "everybody does that." The priest also said he didn't think it was unusual to go on overnight trips with a young boy.

The newspaper reporter "wrote many things that I didn't say," Mercieca told the AP, his voice trembling and sounding feeble at times. "He quotes me as saying I had one night stands with him. That's not true."

Richard Sipe, a former priest who studies sexuality and the priesthood and has counseled abusive clergy and victims, said abusive priests typically deny that their activities were sexual, because they often convince themselves that only intercourse violates their vow of celibacy.

"It's a lack of development," said Sipe. "This is not what an adult reasons about sex."

A study of five decades of clergy sex abuse claims, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the U.S. bishops, found that most victims have been adolescent boys.

Matthew Doig, an investigative reporter with Sarasota Herald-Tribune who talked to Mercieca on Wednesday, said he did not record their phone conversations but he was "100 percent confident" his story was correct.

According to Doig, Mercieca said he had been following the Foley story on CNN and then said, "Now it's his word against mine."

The priest was not quoted in the story as saying they had any "one night stands." However, the newspaper reported Mercieca said there was one night when he was in a drug-induced stupor as he was suffering from a nervous breakdown and "there was an incident he says he can't clearly remember that might have gone too far."

Doig said Mercieca had called back three times after the initial conversation and had confirmed that paragraph but would not directly describe the behavior on that night, claiming it was obscured by many years and his use of tranquilizers and alcohol at the time.

Mercieca told the AP that at the time he knew the young Foley "I had a nervous breakdown and was taking some pills and alcohol and maybe I did something that he didn't like."

The priest said he based that statement on what he had seen on TV news accounts about the Foley case. Pressed for details about what Foley might not have liked, Mercieca said he couldn't remember because "it was a long time ago."

Foley "seems to have interpreted certain things as inappropriate. ... I don't know what I did to him," the priest said. "I wonder why 40 years later he brought this up?"

He said the two became friends when he was assigned to Foley's parish, and he had Christmas dinner at Foley's childhood home, with the boy's parents, one year.

Mercieca described Foley as "a very happy person and he knew how to do things."

"He was 'allegro,"' Mercieca said, switching from English to use a word in Italian that means cheerful or merry.

"We would go to the movies," the priest said, adding another boy would sometimes come along, although he couldn't remember his name.

Referring to the page e-mail scandal, the priest said: "I don't think there was a connection with our friendship and this thing now."

Mercieca brushed off other questions, saying he didn't remember much, and he often paused for a long time before replying.

He said the last time he saw Foley was about 18 years ago when the two had dinner in a restaurant in Lake Worth.

Foley's criminal defense lawyer David Roth declined to comment Thursday, but he said earlier this month: "Mark does not blame the trauma he sustained as a young adolescent for his totally inappropriate" e-mails and instant messages.

Mercieca lives in a house with his brother, George, who is also a priest. He regularly hears confession and celebrates Mass in Gozo's cathedral, one of two main churches on the Mediterranean island.

Gozo, 60 miles south of Sicily, has a population of about 32,000 and is one of Malta's three inhabited islands -- filled with vacation homes and holiday resorts.


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