Priest Tells of Foley Relationship
Then-Altar Boy May Have Found Some Things Inappropriate
By Matthew Doig and Maurice Tamman
October 19, 2006
A Catholic priest told the Herald-Tribune on Wednesday about an intimate two-year relationship he had with former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley when the congressman was a teenage altar boy living in Lake Worth.
From his home on the island of Gozo, near Italy, Anthony Mercieca described a series of encounters that he said Foley might perceive as sexually inappropriate.
Among them: massaging Foley while the boy was naked, skinny-dipping together at a secluded lake in Lake Worth and being naked in the same room on overnight trips.
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.
"I have to confess, I was going through a nervous breakdown," he said. "I was taking pills -- tranquilizers. I used to take them all the time. They affected my mind a little bit."
Mercieca's description of his relationship with Foley is similar to details provided to the Herald-Tribune by sources close to Foley's family.
Those sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mercieca is the priest Foley has claimed sexually abused him.
They say Foley and Mercieca had only one sexual encounter that took place when Foley was 12 or 13.
Foley resigned from Congress last month after his suggestive e-mails to young male pages surfaced. Soon after, he said he was an alcoholic and claimed to have been molested as a boy by a "clergyman."
Tuesday, Foley's civil lawyer, Gerald Richman, told reporters the alleged abuser was a Catholic priest whose name he planned to share with the church as soon as Wednesday. He and Foley attorney David Roth refused further comment.
According to the sources who did not want to be identified, Foley and his family have discussed Mercieca several times during the past three or four years, but his mother refused to believe that the priest was capable of abusing her son.
Foley's father, a stoic ex-Marine, refused to even acknowledge the conversation.
The incident took place about 40 years ago when Foley was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and attended the parish school. Mercieca served as a priest there at the time, in 1966 and 1967, and their encounter occurred during an overnight trip. Specific details and the exact time frame of the trip are not known.
The Foleys were active members of the congregation. His mother often fed the priests and had them over to their house for dinner.
Mercieca, 72, told the Herald-Tribune he and Foley became fast friends when Mercieca moved from Brazil to Florida in 1966 and "loved each other like brothers."
Mercieca said he taught Foley "some wrong things" related to sex, though he wouldn't specify what he meant. He also said they were naked together in a sauna twice.
Mercieca said that, at the time, he considered his relationship with Foley innocent. But he now says he could see how his actions could be labeled inappropriate.
Mercieca was adamant that his encounter with Foley was an aberration, and that the Catholic Church never had to send him for counseling during his 38 years in the priesthood in Florida.
"I have been in many parishes, and I have never been" accused, he said.
Mercieca said although Foley plans to "expose him to the world," he still has "great memories of our trips."
"I wish him well," Mercieca said. "Let bygones be bygones."
As of late Wednesday, neither Foley's attorney nor the Archdiocese of Miami had publicly released the name of the priest Foley says abused him.
Palm Beach State Attorney's Office spokesman Michael Edmondson said Foley's attorney was expected to send the name, but it had not arrived when the office closed Wednesday.
He said the name would then be passed along to the church officials shortly after his office receives it, most likely tomorrow.
The public release of the priest's name would come after the church and prosecutor's office consulted and the church had a chance to review the priest's history.
A spokesperson for the archdiocese said the church wants to release the name as soon as possible to encourage other potential victims to come forward and protect children if the abuser is still active.
Mercieca said during his two years in Lake Worth, he ate dinners with Foley's family and that Foley's grandmother "was delighted to see me all the time."
Mercieca said he is confused about why Foley has decided to come forward after almost 40 years, wondering if he was looking for a scapegoat.
"Why does he want to destroy me in my old age?" Mercieca said.
He said the two went on numerous trips together. Some were in-state, to wrestling matches or the rodeo in Arcadia, and others to Washington, D.C., and New York.
At the same time, Mercieca said he was taking tranquilizers because of his "great depression" brought on by leaving his previous home in Brazil and adjusting to his first assignment in the United States.
He said it was the combination of the tranquilizers and too much alcohol that led to the encounter with Foley that he can't remember.
Jon Ombres, 52, a former altar boy at Sacred Heart Church with Foley in the 1960s, said the two were close friends until eighth grade, when he went to high school. Foley was held back that year and the two drifted apart.
He said Mercieca was one of his favorite priests and hoped he was not the man who assaulted Foley.
"My confirmation name was Antonio; that was because of him."
Ombres said he and Foley spent many Sunday afternoons with the young priest, but Ombres said he was never propositioned and did not know that Foley and Mercieca had become more intimate.
In retrospect, he can remember several times that Mercieca and Foley did things together without him and he felt left out.
He viewed Mercieca as a friend and said the the priest looked to the boys for help adjusting to the American culture.
"He took us to the movies and would tell us to call him 'Tony.' He taught us to drive in his '57 Chevy," Ombres said. "He taught us to drive a stick-shift in a light-blue Volkswagen, driving around the church parking lot."
Ombres smiled when he remembered Mercieca struggling through the English Mass. Ombres would mouth the words to the priest while standing next to him swinging the incense holder.
"His eyes would just, like relax, after that and he was fine," he said.
Mercieca went to Foley and Ombres to ask the meaning of English curse words that he had heard in confession.
When Ombres was first approached last week about whom Foley may identify as his molester, he thought it might be an older priest whose apartment they also visited after Sunday services.
That priest would allow them to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee, he said. One afternoon, however, the priest tried to undo his fly. Ombres fled, never to return. Foley, however, continued to visit the priest.
"I though it was him; I was really hoping it wasn't Father Mercieca," he said.
During his time in Florida, Mercieca was assigned to at least six churches, most recently at Blessed Trinity in Miami Springs. The Official Catholic Directory, which lists all priests and their assignments, indicates Mercieca retired in 2004.
Mercieca, known as "Father Tony," worked for two churches in Pompano Beach, including St. Henry Catholic Church from 1987 to 1993.
Mercieca always was very reserved, said longtime St. Henry office manager and bookkeeper Louise DiPretoro.
He performed a Mass each day and also taught Christian doctrine classes for children from grade school to eighth grade, DiPretoro said.
The quiet, diminutive priest posed a stark contrast to the gregarious church pastor Monsignor James Reynolds, who sang and told jokes at a club known as "Harry's Hideaway" in the parish hall, complete with a liquor license and live big band and comedy shows that have drawn attention from NBC and Time magazine.
"They were two opposites but they complemented one another," DiPretoro said. "Father Tony, he did not mingle. He was not a social butterfly."
He was not interested in sports or the beach, but would come to the social club occasionally, she said.
"He just came and sat down and sometime would have dinner and then say goodnight and off he went," she said. "He was a private person. If someone wanted to take a photo, he'd walk the other way."
But Mercieca was extremely dedicated to making hospital visits for elderly members of the church, she recalled.
"He was very good with the elderly and the sick," she said. "We get calls at two in the morning and six in the morning. He would never say a word if I called him. He would go."
Mercieca was not especially close to the other priests or sisters but would make small talk with the church office staff, said DiPretoro, who still exchanges Christmas cards with Mercieca.
"We talked a lot of about his homeland, his family, his brothers," she said. "He used to go to Malta for a month every year and go see them."
Mercieca has a heart condition and underwent a bypass operation, she said.
A Web site for the Diocese of Gozo lists Mercieca as one of its priests.
Joseph Calleja, a priest with the diocese, said Mercieca is still an active priest but that he lives at his own home.
Calleja said he has known Mercieca for 10 years, and talked with him when the priest returned from the United States during the holidays.
Calleja said Mercieca grew up in a very religious family in Victoria, the capital of Gozo, a Mediterranean island that is part of the Republic of Malta.
He had two brothers who also became Catholic priests. One is deceased, and the other, George, lives with Mercieca, Calleja said. His parents, Magda and Joseph, are dead, Calleja said.
Calleja said Mercieca is credited for donating most of the 100,000-plus books at the Gozo Cathedral Public Library.
Anthony Fallugia, the head of the cathedral library, said he met Mercieca 28 years ago at church. Fallugia said he had a lot of books in boxes, and that when Mercieca saw them, he offered to donate more from America.
Fallugia said his friend did not say much about his time in Florida.
"He doesn't speak very much," Fallugia said. "We speak about books, nothing else."
Staff writers Bob Mahlburg and Tom Lyons contributed to this report.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.