- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Catholic priest admitted yesterday to fondling Mark Foley nearly 40 years ago, an episode the disgraced Florida lawmaker made public after he resigned last month for sending sexually explicit Internet messages to teenage boys he knew from the Congressional Page Program.

“Once maybe I touched him or so,” the Rev. Anthony Mercieca, 69, yesterday told a TV station in Florida, where Mr. Foley is in therapy for a reported alcohol addiction. “It’s not something you call, I mean, rape or penetration or anything like that, you know. We were just fondling.”

Father Mercieca, who now lives on the Maltese island of Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea, was posted at the Florida church where Mr. Foley was an altar boy in the 1960s. Just as Mr. Foley did after he was exposed, Father Mercieca cited substance abuse in explaining his actions.

“I have to confess, I was going through a nervous breakdown,” he told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which broke the news in yesterday’s editions. “I was taking pills — tranquilizers. I used to take them all the time. They affected my mind a little bit.”

Though associates of Mr. Foley said they never knew him to drink much, the six-term lawmaker said through his attorney that he has been a “closet drinker” for years and sent teenage boys lurid messages only when he was drunk. During that press conference, the attorney also said for the first time that a priest had molested Mr. Foley when he was a teen.

But unlike Mr. Foley, Father Mercieca is hardly apologetic.

“He seemed to like it, you know,” he said in a telephone interview with West Palm Beach television station WPTV. “So it was sort of more like a spontaneous thing.”

Among the activities Father Mercieca recalled were massaging the young Foley while the boy was naked, skinny-dipping with him at a secluded lake and being naked in the same room on overnight trips.

The admission ends three weeks of speculation over whether Mr. Foley really had been molested but raised other questions about why he had waited so long to report it.

“Let’s say it was 40 years ago, almost 40 years ago, so why bring this up at this late stage?” Father Mercieca told the TV station.

“I would say that if I offended him, I am sorry, but to remember the good time we had together, you know?” he said. “And how really we enjoyed each other’s company. And to let bygones be bygones. Don’t keep dwelling on this thing, you know?”

Knowing Mr. Foley, Father Mercieca said, he’s confident the former congressman will recover.

“He will overcome it with a psychiatrist, you know,” he said. “Mark is a very intelligent man.”

In Washington, meanwhile, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner and former House Clerk Jeff Trandahl testified yesterday before the House ethics committee about the Foley matter and how Republican leaders had responded to complaints about Mr. Foley that arose a year ago or longer.

“Had anyone known about it, we would have moved to expel Mr. Foley from our ranks immediately,” Mr. Boehner told reporters after testifying for an hour behind closed doors. “The ongoing inquiry will determine the facts.”

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