Priest admits fondling disgraced US politician

A Maltese-born Miami priest has been banned from all clerical roles after admitting intimate contact with disgraced former US House of Representatives member, Mark Foley.

In news that has shocked the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, the American Archdiocese of Miami barred Fr Anthony Mercieca on Friday from functioning as a priest anywhere in the world after confirming that he was the clergyman accused by Foley of molesting him in the 1960s, the Maltese paper, The Independent reported.

Mercieca, who was born and who now lives on the Maltese island of Gozo, can no longer publicly celebrate Mass, administer the sacraments, or wear priestly clothes, said Mary Ross Agosta, a diocesan spokeswoman.

Ms Agosta apologised to Foley in a statement and described as repugnant Mercieca's intimate contact with him, which the priest disclosed to a Florida newspaper last week.

Mercieca, 72, worked in south Florida for almost 40 years and remains under the auspices of the archdiocese.

"Such behaviour is morally reprehensible, canonically criminal and inexcusable," Ms Agosta said.

Foley, 52, resigned from the House of Representatives last month after the release of sexually explicit messages he had sent to teenage congressional pages. Soon after, his lawyer announced that Foley was gay, had gone into treatment for alcoholism, and had been molested by a clergyman when he was 13 to 15.

"An apology is due to Mr Foley for the hurt he has experienced," Ms Agosta said.

So far, she said, no one else had reported sexual misconduct by Mercieca.

He worked in at least eight parishes in south Florida since 1966, most recently at a church in Miami Springs between 1993 and 2003. Ms Agosta said he left Florida to retire.

"There were absolutely no other problems," she said in an interview.

Ms Agosta said the Archdiocese of Miami had begun an internal investigation that could result in further sanctions against Mercieca. A spokesman for the Bishop of Gozo said an investigation was under way there, too.

Though retired, Mercieca still said Mass every morning at a cathedral in Gozo, the Maltese island where he was raised and now lives with his brother George, also a priest.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, an American advocacy group, said the actions of both archdioceses were insufficient and that Mercieca should be put in a secure treatment facility while the police investigate.

There seemed to be little anger at Mercieca among his neighbours, The New York Times reports. "There are a lot of people like this," said one, Carmel Grech. "Everybody has sins. What is the big fuss here?"

However, experts on sex abuse say comments by Mercieca who acknowledged being naked with Foley when the former congressman was young, fit a pattern of distorted thinking that they've seen over and over among offenders.

Mercieca had earlier told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that he was naked with Foley in a sauna, and was quoted in other interviews saying he also fondled him. Mercieca told the AP that the encounters weren't sexual, a distinction abuse experts found disturbing.

The priest also told a Florida newspaper that he and Foley "loved each other like brothers" and that although he taught Foley "some wrong things" related to sex, Mercieca insisted their interactions were innocent.

"The priest is very focused on the legalities here and I think it's important for the rest of us to see the enormous power differential between these two," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Centre at the University of New Hampshire.

"There is a tremendous abuse of authority and position involved in these activities whether or not they constitute child molestation."

Foley, 52, resigned from Congress last month after his sexually explicit computer messages to young male pages were released. His lawyer has said that Foley was an alcoholic, gay and had been molested as a youth by a clergyman.

Gozo priest who said he fondled Foley relieved of duties (The Independent (Malta), 22/10/06)
Priest admits affair with congressman (The Age, 21/10/06)
Priest admits 'fondling' Foley (Australian, 20/10/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Archdiocese of Miami
Gozo diocese
Mark Foley (Wikipedia)
Mark Foley scandal (Wikipedia)

23 Oct 2006