updated 10/19/2006 8:39:10 PM ET 2006-10-20T00:39:10

MSNBC.com’s Oct. 19 coverage about sexual abuse allegations by Rep. Mark Foley included a photo distributed by the Sarasota, Fla., Herald-Tribune that incorrectly depicted Anthony Mercieca, the priest who Foley alleges abused him. The man in the photo was not Mercieca.

A priest acknowledged Thursday that he used to go naked in saunas with Mark Foley decades ago when the former congressman was a boy in Florida, but denied that the two had sex.

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The Rev. Anthony Mercieca, 72, speaking by telephone from his home on the Maltese island of Gozo, said a report in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about their relationship was “exaggerated.”

“We were friends and trusted each other as brothers and loved each other as brothers,” Mercieca said. Asked if their relationship was sexual in nature, the priest replied: “it wasn’t.”

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported described several encounters that he said Foley might perceive as sexually inappropriate. They include 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.

The paper reported Mercieca said there was one night when he was in a drug-induced stupor and there was an incident but he couldn't clearly remember, the newspaper reported.

'I was taking pills'
"I have to confess, I was going through a nervous breakdown," the newspaper reported Mercieca as saying from his home on the island of Gozo, south of Italy. "I was taking pills - tranquilizers. I used to take them all the time. They affected my mind a little bit."

Mercieca could not immediately be located for comment Thursday by The Associated Press.

Foley resigned from Congress last month after his sexually explicit e-mails to young male pages surfaced.

His lawyer said shortly after his resignation that Foley was an alcoholic, gay and had been molested as a boy by a "clergyman." Foley's civil lawyer, Gerald Richman, said the alleged abuser was a Catholic priest whose name he shared with state prosecutors on Wednesday.

Foley's criminal defense lawyer David Roth declined to comment.

Earlier this month, Roth said "Mark does not blame the trauma he sustained as a young adolescent for his totally inappropriate" e-mails and instant messages. "He continues to offer no excuse whatsoever for his conduct."

Taught Foley 'some wrong things'
Mercieca had worked at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth in 1967, according to church records. Foley would have been 13 at the time.

Mercieca, 72, said he and Foley became fast friends when he moved there from Brazil and "loved each other like brothers," the newspaper reported.

Video: GOP reacts to allegations Mercieca said he taught Foley "some wrong things" related to sex, though he wouldn't specify what he meant, the newspaper said. It reported the priest said that at the time, he considered the relationship innocent, but he now says he could see how his actions could be called inappropriate.

Mercieca said although Foley plans to "expose him to the world," he still has "great memories of our trips," the newspaper reported.

"I wish him well," Mercieca said. "Let bygones be bygones."

No accusations elsewhere
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, according to the newspaper.

"I have been in many parishes, and I have never been" accused, he 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. Gozo, a Mediterranean island, is part of the Republic of Malta.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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