ROME – A Roman Catholic diocese has opened an investigation of a priest who said he fondled and shared saunas while naked with Mark Foley when the former U.S. congressman was a boy in Florida.
In interviews in the past two days, the Rev. Anthony Mercieca, 69, who is now with a diocese on an island off Malta, has given different details about his encounters with Foley four decades ago.
On Wednesday, he told the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune by telephone that he massaged the boy in the nude, was naked in the same room on overnight trips with him and had gone skinny dipping with him. On Thursday, he told The Associated Press that he was naked in a sauna with Foley.
Also Thursday, he told WPTV of West Palm Beach, Fla., that he touched Foley "once, maybe."
In all of the interviews, he denied having sexual intercourse with Foley.
"It's not something you call, I mean, rape or penetration or anything like that, you know," he told the TV station in a telephone interview. "It was just fondling."
Foley, a 52-year-old Florida Republican, resigned from Congress last month after the release of his sexually explicit computer messages to young male pages.
After Foley's resignation from Congress, his lawyer said 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.
A statement from the diocese of Gozo, a small Mediterranean island off Malta, said that its bishop, Mario Grech, contacted the Archdiocese of Miami on Thursday evening seeking further information about the case. The statement, issued late Thursday, said the diocese had learnt of the case for the first time in the international press.
"In the light of all this ... Bishop Grech will instruct the response team to investigate these allegations according to the policies established by the Maltese Ecclesiastical Province with regards to cases of sexual abuse in pastoral activity," the statement said. "Grech will pass all information he receives pertaining to this case to the response team as he has done in similar cases."
The Maltese Church instituted the team in 1999 to deal with any sexual abuse allegations.
The statement said the team would present the bishop with a report, and that Grech promised to cooperate. It did not say whether Mercieca was still serving as a priest on Gozo, where he regularly hears confession and celebrates Mass in the cathedral, one of two main churches on the Mediterranean island.
It also did not say whether it would investigate anything other than Mercieca's recent statements about Foley.
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.
"Bishop Grech, conscious of the gravity of pedophilia, reiterates that he will cooperate with those responsible for investigating such cases so that justice is done to the victims, the perpetrators are reformed and the common good is safeguarded," the statement said.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune published an interview with Mercieca on Thursday in which the priest described several encounters that he said Foley might perceive as sexually inappropriate.
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.
Mercieca later told The Associated Press in Rome by phone that the report was "exaggerated."
"We were friends and trusted each other as brothers and loved each other as brothers," Mercieca said in the AP interview. Asked if their association was sexual, the priest replied: "It wasn't."
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 that "everybody does that."
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."
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.
A spokesman for the state attorney's office in West Palm Beach, Mike Edmondson, said that an e-mail from Foley's attorney was received late Wednesday identifying the alleged abuser. He said the e-mail was being forwarded to the Archdiocese of Miami. Edmondson said law enforcement action is over, unless other alleged victims come forward, because Foley's attorneys have said that the politician doesn't want to prosecute.