updated 10/21/2006 5:47:52 PM ET 2006-10-21T21:47:52

People on the Maltese island of Gozo defended a native priest accused of molesting a former U.S. congressman as a boy, saying Saturday he was a well-liked, private man with a quiet demeanor.

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The Rev. Anthony Mercieca, who is retired and lives on Gozo, was quoted by media in Florida this week as saying that he fondled former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley and was nude with him on several occasions while serving in a parish in the state in the 1960s.

The Archdiocese of Miami has barred the priest from all church work as it investigates the abuse claims. The Maltese Church has also opened a probe into the case.

Foley, a 52-year-old Florida Republican, resigned from Congress last month after the release of his sexually explicit computer messages to young male pages. His lawyer later said that Foley was an alcoholic, gay and had been molested as a boy by a “clergyman.”

On the island of Gozo, many residents refused to speak about the case, and those who did had only kind words for Mercieca, who they said grew up in a respected and pious family.

Mercieca’s brother, who is also a priest, told reporters outside the home they share that the allegations were a “political invention.” Asked why he thought so, the Rev. George Mercieca said “because he is one of (President) Bush’s men.” He was apparently referring to Foley being a Republican.

The housekeeper in the brothers’ home told reporters that he had celebrated Mass with his family earlier in the day. She declined to give her name.

Anthony Mercieca, 69, does not serve in any parish on the island, a part of the conservative, predominantly Catholic nation of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. However, he regularly celebrates Mass and hears confession in the cathedral, one of two main churches on the island.

No known complaints on the island
The Rev. Edward Zammit, assistant to Gozo Bishop Mario Grech, said he knew of no complaints of a sexual nature against Mercieca on the island. Mercieca’s lawyer did not answer his phone.

A woman who was born in the house next to the Merciecas’ home and still lives there also defended the priest. “We never expected to hear this thing. They never gave us any trouble, or to anybody else,” said 46-year-old Maria Pace. “This came completely out of the blue.”

Pace’s mother, 87-year-old Antonia, described the priest as a shy, respectful man who hesitates to approach people. “He never speaks to you. If you want, you talk to him first.”

She said Mercieca had been raised in a deeply religious household, where three of four brothers grew up to become priests.

“Their mother was a saint. She was always at home, always praying and always at church, always at church,” she said forcefully, sitting inside her kitchen. “She was a very good woman. She used to tell us the rosary, and their father was a good man, too.”

Other residents of Victoria, the town in the center of the island of 32,000 people, mostly refused to discuss the case. Those who did, though, refused to give their names and spoke respectfully of Mercieca.

Massaged Foley, was naked with him
“We have big respect here for priests and religion,” Maria Pace said. “It’s very important here and everyone here knows priests.”

On Wednesday, Mercieca told the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune by telephone that he had massaged Foley as a boy in the nude, was naked in the same room on overnight trips with him and had gone skinny dipping with him.

On Thursday, he told The Associated Press that he was naked in a sauna with Foley. Also Thursday, he told WPTV of West Palm Beach, Fla., that he touched Foley “once, maybe.”

Denied having sex
In all the interviews, he denied having sexual intercourse with Foley.

“It’s not something you call, I mean, rape or penetration or anything like that, you know,” he told the TV station in a telephone interview. “It was just fondling.”

Video: Investigation into Foley allegation

Mercieca later the AP in Rome by phone that the reports were “exaggerated.”

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

He also said earlier in the week that he was using pills and alcohol and could not remember much about a night he spent alone with the boy.

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

A spokesman for the state attorney’s office in West Palm Beach, Mike Edmondson, said law enforcement action in the case is over, unless other alleged victims come forward, because Foley’s attorneys have said that the politician doesn’t want to prosecute.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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