Priest calls report of relationship with Foley 'exaggerated'


October 19, 2006

ROME, Italy (AP) -- A priest acknowledged Thursday that he used to go naked in saunas with Mark Foley decades ago when the former congressman was a boy in Florida, but denied that the two had sex.

Father Anthony Mercieca, speaking by telephone from his home on the Maltese island of Gozo, said a report in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about their relationship was "exaggerated."

"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."

His comments came after the Florida newspaper published a story on Thursday that quoted him as saying in an interview that he had an inappropriate two-year relationship with Foley in the 1960s that included massaging the boy in the nude, but he did not specifically remember having sex.

The Republican congressman resigned from Congress last month after his sexually explicit e-mails to young male pages surfaced.

His lawyer said shortly after his resignation 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 state prosecutors on Wednesday.

Richman did not return phone messages left Thursday by The Associated Press. Foley's criminal defense lawyer David Roth declined to comment.

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 newspaper 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.

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.

He was not quoted in the story as saying they had any "one night stands." However, the newspaper reported that he said there was one night when 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 from his home on the island of Gozo, south of Italy. "I was taking pills -- tranquilizers. I used to take them all the time. They affected my mind a little bit."