Priest's Relations With Foley To Be Probed

Father Anthony Mercieca
Archdiocese of Miami
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 retired and lives on the Maltese island of Gozo, has given different details about his encounters with Foley four decades ago.

On Friday, Mercieca was stripped of all religious duties, and the bishop's spokesman in Gozo announced the church plans to set up an investigative team, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

Mercieca told CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric Thursday that he and Foley used to sit in the sauna, but not naked. "We used to do, like the athletes, you know; he'll stay with his towel on and go on the bench and I will massage his neck and his back."

However, this account contradicts what Mercieca told the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune by telephone Wednesday: 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.

Among the encounters Mercieca had with Foley, he told Couric of one during which Mercieca says he took so many pills that something might have happened he can't recall.

Read The Full Interview Transcript

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."

Mercieca served at eight Florida churches over 37 years, but a church spokeswoman says that doesn't mean he was abusing children, reports Attkisson.

"I can tell you there are no other allegations against him, there never has been. So the fact that he was transferred around is not because of claims of misconduct anywhere," said Mary Ross Agosta of the Archdiocese of Miami.

In a press release, the archdiocese wrote "The Archdiocese of Miami is distressed by the revelations disclosed by Father Mercieca regarding former Representative Mark Foley. Such behavior is morally reprehensible, canonically criminal and inexcusable. The events described are totally contrary to the ministry of a priest."

The archdiocese received the name in an e-mail from Florida state prosecutors, who got it from Foley's lawyers.

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 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.

Charles Buttigieg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Malta, the main island of the archipelago south of Sicily, said Friday he was not aware of any other complaints involving Mercieca. "I don't know of any other complaints about this priest," he said by telephone from Malta. Buttigieg said the archdiocese's response team has yet to meet on this matter, as Mercieca's case was just being referred to it.

Mercieca, a Maltese citizen, is retired and does not serve in any parish on the island, the Rev. Anthony Refalo, the Gozo diocese spokesman, told the AP. However, Mercieca regularly celebrates Mass and hears confession in the cathedral, one of two main churches on the island.

The U.S.-based group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests urged the Maltese bishop to immediately "move the cleric to a secure facility where he will not have access to children."

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."

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. 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.