An Ohio lawmaker testified Thursday before the House ethics panel.
WASHINGTON -- A retired priest from Malta acknowledged Thursday that he had intimate contact with a youthful Mark Foley that involved nudity and -- on at least one occasion -- "light touching," but denied that he and Foley had "sexual intercourse."
The Rev. Anthony Mercieca, in a telephone interview with the Washington Post from the Maltese island of Gozo, said he was surprised that his long-ago interaction with Foley had become linked to the scandal that erupted last month and cost the former congressman his job.
Foley, who served as an altar boy at the Sacred Heart Catholic church in Lake Worth, Fla., when Father Mercieca was assigned there in the mid-1960s, resigned from Congress after reports about sexually intimate electronic messages he had sent to Congressional pages. Following his resignation, Foley entered alcohol rehabilitation, said he was gay, and alleged that he had been sexually abused by a member of the clergy as a youth.
On Thursday morning, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, citing confidential sources close to Foley's family, identified Father Mercieca as the priest in question. Though Father Mercieca confirmed his past ties to Foley to the Herald-Tribune and in the Post interview, the Post could not confirm that Foley was referring to Father Mercieca in his allegations, or whether there may be another priest involved.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader John Boehner testified before the House ethics committee Thursday, indicating afterward that he repeated his statements that he had told Speaker Dennis Hastert of Rep. Mark Foley's overly friendly e-mails to a former male page.
Boehner, R-Ohio, would not say what he specifically told the committee behind closed doors, but has publicly quoted Hastert as telling him the complaint "had been taken care of."
"I made myself clear on the record for the last three weeks, and I told the ethics committee today the same thing that I've told many of you," Boehner said.
He appeared after the former clerk of the House testified about his actions regarding Foley's inappropriate conduct with male pages.
Father Mercieca told the Post that issues such as molestation and sexual harassment are "in the eye of the beholder," and that Foley -- who was 12 or 13 at the time -- might have interpreted some of their contact "the wrong way."
Father Mercieca said he is currently 69, meaning he would have been close to 30 at the time he served in Foley's Florida parish.
During at least one encounter with Foley, "I was a little out of myself," Father Mercieca said, from using tranquilizers as a result of what the Sarasota paper described as a nervous breakdown. "The whole idea is ... that I did something that he did not like, but at the time he did not say anything."
Father Mercieca said that he regarded their trips to skinny dip in Lake Worth, or to local saunas, as well within the cultural bounds as he understood them in Brazil, where he said he attended seminary and spent his first years as a priest.
In Brazil "they skinny dip all the time and no one gets scandalized. It is part of the culture. It is natural," Father Mercieca said. "They don't make an issue out of a skinny dip in the park or a massage.
"It was not what you call intercourse. ... There was no rape or anything. ... Maybe light touches here or there."
Father Mercieca said he could not explain why Foley might be attributing his broader problems to their contact.