Experts on sex abuse say the comments of a Roman Catholic priest who acknowledged being naked with Mark Foley when he was young fit a pattern of distorted thinking that they’ve seen repeatedly among offenders.
The Rev. Anthony Mercieca told the Associated Press that he was naked with Foley in a sauna and was quoted in other interviews saying he also fondled him. Mercieca told the AP that the relationship wasn’t sexual, a distinction abuse experts found disturbing.
“The priest is very focused on the legalities here, and I think it’s important for the rest of us to see the enormous power differential between these two,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
“There is a tremendous abuse of authority and position involved in these activities whether or not they constitute child molestation,” he said.
Foley, 52, resigned from Congress last month after his sexually explicit computer messages to young male pages were released. His lawyer has said that Foley was an alcoholic, gay and had been molested as a youth by a clergyman.
The Archdiocese of Miami confirmed Friday that Mercieca, 69, is the person Foley said abused him as a teen. In phone interviews, the priest, who is retired and lives on the Maltese island of Gozo, has given details about his encounters with Foley four decades ago.
The priest told the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune that he and Foley “loved each other like brothers” and that although he taught Foley “some wrong things” related to sex, Mercieca insisted their relationship was innocent.
“It was just fondling,” he told WPTV of West Palm Beach, Fla.
From the perspective of people who have worked with abusers and their victims, that thinking is typical of a molester. Offenders, who are sexually immature, commonly view their relationships with their victims as normal and are baffled when others see things differently.
“This is the same type of rationalization that I’ve heard time and time again from priests who have been grooming or setting a young boy up for molestation,” said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer turned victim advocate.
The Herald-Tribune reported that Mercieca said he could not clearly remember one encounter “that might have gone too far” because he had been taking tranquilizers and drinking at the time.
“It’s common that offenders will block out major pieces of the events. I personally believe that it’s also part of the denial process, where they just don’t, frankly, want to remember,” said the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, president of Saint Luke Institute, which provides psychological counseling to Catholic priests who suffer from a variety of troubles, including sexual attraction to children. “Those are typical kinds of statements of offenders who are not in recovery.”
Abusers assume that because a young person seems to be enthusiastic around them, that any boundary crossing or sexual activity is OK, Finkelhor said.
Mercieca’s “basic approach is, ‘You’re trying to take something good and trying to turn it into something evil,’ ” said Peter Isely, a clinical social worker who counsels abuse victims and a leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“He literally describes this 12- or 13-year-old child as if they’re equals in age and in personality and characteristic, as if there’s absolutely no power differential,” Isely said.
“This is what makes these offenders so dangerous,” he said.
States have different legal definitions of what constitutes child molestation, but many consider inappropriate touching a criminal offense. Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for the state attorney’s office in West Palm Beach, Fla., said law enforcement action is over in Mercieca’s case unless other alleged victims come forward, because Foley says he doesn’t want to prosecute.