ROME – A Roman Catholic priest now living in Malta acknowledged Thursday that he used to go naked in saunas with former Rep. Mark Foley when Foley was a boy in the 1960s. But the priest insists the two never had sex.
Describing the sauna visits with parishioner Foley, Rev. Anthony Mercieca told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home on Gozo, one of the Maltese islands, that "everybody does that." Foley was 12 and 13 years old at the time.
The priest, however, disputed an account published in Thursday's edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as an "exaggerated" account of their relationship.
"We were friends and trusted each other as brothers and loved each other as brothers," Mercieca said. Asked if their relationship was sexual in nature, the priest replied: "it wasn't."
Foley, 52, resigned from Congress on Sept. 29 after being confronted by a news outlet about an overly friendly e-mail exchange with a former House page. Other sexually explicit e-mails to other former teen pages also surfaced.
After leaving Washington, D.C., Foley checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic, announced he had been molested as a boy by a "clergyman" and confirmed that he is gay.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republican leaders have been slammed by critics for not questioning the Florida Republican more vigorously about the e-mail exchanges with the page, who complained to aides of Louisiana Rep. Rodney Alexander in June 2005. Alexander had sponsored the boy to come work as a congressional assistant in 2003.
On Wednesday, Foley attorney Gerald Richman told the name of the priest to Barry Krischer, State Attorney for the 15th Judicial Circuit Court in Palm Beach County.
On Tuesday, Richman said the priest who allegedly abused Foley is still alive, but the statute of limitations for criminal charges against the man has expired. That claim, however, is misleading said Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for the state attorney's office in West Palm Beach, because the alleged abuser may have committed similar crimes more recently on other victims.
The Archdiocese of Miami was given the name of the alleged abuser on Thursday, and said it was seeking permission from the State Attorney to release his name to the public.
spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said the Archdiocese is sympathetic to Foley's allegations.
"The Archdiocese of Miami prays that Representative Mark Foley realizes he is not alone in his journey to recovery; the Holy Spirit is his guiding light," Agosta said.
In the newspaper article, Mercieca described several encounters that he said Foley might perceive as sexually inappropriate, including being nude in the same room on overnight trips. The newspaper also reported that Mercieca said one night he was in a drug-induced stupor and he couldn't clearly remember what happened.
"I have to confess, I was going through a nervous breakdown," the newspaper reported Mercieca as saying. "I was taking pills — tranquilizers. I used to take them all the time. They affected my mind a little bit."
But Mercieca took issue with the newspaper's account of the conversation.
The reporter "wrote many things that I didn't say," Mercieca, 72, told the AP in Rome. "He quotes me as saying I had one night stands with him. That's not true," said Mercieca, whose voice trembled and sounded feeble at times.