Church to investigate priest in Foley case

October 21, 2006|By Scott Travis | Scott Travis,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Archdiocese of Miami apologized to Mark Foley yesterday and launched an investigation into allegations that a priest serving at his Lake Worth parish 40 years ago sexually abused the disgraced former congressman.

The Rev. Anthony Mercieca, 69, was suspended by the archdiocese yesterday, preventing him from performing priestly duties anywhere, including the Mediterranean Republic of Malta, where he now lives.

Church officials have also asked the pastors at all eight South Florida churches Mercieca served to make announcements at this Sunday's service urging any other possible victims to come forward. Mercieca served as assistant or associate pastor in parishes from Homestead to North Palm Beach from 1965 to 2002.

Church officials said they will invite Foley to meet with them to help him in his recovery.

"While it was long in coming, with God's merciful grace this painful revelation can be the beginning of reconciliation and an instrument of redemption and healing for Mr. Foley," the archdiocese said in a statement.

Gerald Richman, Foley's civil lawyer, called the church's response "an appropriate way" to deal with the situation. He didn't know if Foley would want to meet with church officials. Foley has been in an alcohol rehabilitation center for the past month.

"That's something we would not even bring to his attention until after he is out of his treatment," he said.

Foley, 52, a Republican from Fort Pierce, resigned from Congress last month after his sexually explicit e-mails to young male pages surfaced.

His lawyers told the state attorney's office this week that Mercieca had sexually abused Foley as a child. Mercieca was a young priest, and Foley was a 13-year-old altar boy at Sacred Heart in Lake Worth. Foley is not pursuing criminal charges.

Mercieca retired in 2002 but still performed Mass and some ceremonial functions in the small Maltese island of Gozo. He won't be able to serve as a priest in any capacity, at least until the investigation is complete, said Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami.

Mercieca denies having had sex with Foley but said the two skinny-dipped and sat naked in saunas and hotel rooms on overnight trips. He said he also touched Foley at least one time. The incidents happened between 1966 and 1967.

His statements prompted the church to take immediate action, Agosta said.

"I think the statements we heard were shocking and disheartening," she said. "Clearly, any time the archdiocese receives reports or allegations of any kind of sexual abuse with minors, we have a very clear policy on what we need to do. After hearing Father's comments in the media, we determined the allegations were credible."

A five-member committee made up of lay members in the church will interview those involved and present findings to Archbishop John Favalora, Agosta said. Mercieca could permanently lose all rights to serve as a priest, she said. Officials said he probably would not lose his pension.

Although Mercieca talked to many reporters on Thursday, he couldn't be reached yesterday.

"My take is that he has probably left Gozo," said Herman Grech, a staff writer for the Times of Malta newspaper. "Loads of reporters are outside his house, but there is no sign of him whatsoever."

Officials from the Gozo Diocese said Thursday that they would conduct an investigation. It is unclear whether their efforts will be separate from those of the Miami Archdiocese. Gozo Diocese officials couldn't be reached yesterday afternoon.

Scott Travis writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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