Newspaper's Pursuit of Foley Priest Took on Watergate Trappings

By Phil Davis
Times Daily [Tampa FL]
October 19, 2006

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune's pursuit of a Roman Catholic priest who admitted an inappropriate relationship with a disgraced congressman 40 years ago took on the trappings of the Watergate investigation with a source agreeing to a code that would confirm information.

The newspaper reported Thursday that sources close to former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley's family said Foley had "one sexual encounter that took place when Foley was 12 or 13." The paper did not disclose the identity of its sources.

Matthew Doig, one of the reporters who broke the story, said Thursday that the source would not name the priest, but agreed to confirm the name if the reporters could find the man themselves. He and colleague Maurice Tamman used church records and the Internet to identify about half a dozen priests who might have had contact with Foley decades ago when he attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Tamman then read the names to the source, who agreed to hang up the phone if the reporters hit the right name. The same technique was used by Washington Post reporters to confirm sensitive information and protect sources in the Watergate scandal.

The source hung up when Tamman mentioned the Rev. Anthony Mercieca, Doig said Thursday.

"With this guy, we got the hang-up," Doig said Thursday, adding they called back to confirm.

The reporters then tracked Mercieca, now 72, to an archdiocese on the Maltese island of Gozo.

The priest told Doig he'd been following Foley's troubles on CNN. Foley, a 52-year-old Republican, resigned from Congress last month after his sexually explicit e-mails to young male pages surfaced. His lawyer later said Foley was alcoholic, gay and had been molested as a boy by a "clergyman."

"Now it's his word against mine," Doig quoted Mercieca as saying.

Doig said Mercieca described several encounters that he said Foley might perceive as sexually inappropriate, including massaging Foley while the boy was naked, skinny-dipping together at a secluded lake in Lake Worth and being nude in the same room on overnight trips. Mercieca told Doig there was one night when he was in a drug-induced stupor and he couldn't clearly remember what happened and "might have gone too far."

Mercieca on Thursday confirmed much of the story in an interview with The Associated Press, but said the Herald-Tribune reporters "exaggerated" his encounters with Foley.

The paper defended its reporting.

After the initial conversation, Mercieca called back three times, Doig said. The priest was concerned about what would happen when the information became public. Each time, Doig said Mercieca confirmed details of earlier conversations, but would not describe the behavior on the one night he told Doig he crossed the line, claiming it was unclear due to his use of tranquilizers and alcohol at the time and the decades that have passed since.

Doig said Mercieca specifically confirmed this paragraph from the story: "One night, when Mercieca says he was in a drug-induced stupor, there was an incident he says he can't clearly remember that might have gone too far."

"He said, 'Yes, that is absolutely true.' And that's a direct quote," Doig said.

Asked Thursday if he was confident in the accuracy of his story, Doig said: "100 percent confident."

On Thursday, the paper published a correction on its Web site, saying a photo it had run with the article was of another man, not Mercieca. It said the the photo had been taken from an article on the Web site of a Maltese library Mercieca is affiliated with.

"We feel terrible about the mistake," Executive Editor Mike Connelly said. "I'm completely confident in the reporting, but we still feel terrible about the mistake."


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