The Altar Boy and the Priest

In the fall of 2003, Mark Foley huddled in his Capitol Hill office with his sister for a soul-searching talk. The Florida congressman had just exited a Senate race amid hints that he was gay--but that wasn't all that was troubling him. As he broke down sobbing, Foley revealed that he'd been "repeatedly" abused by a priest, says Kirk Fordham, his chief of staff, who was present and described the meeting to NEWSWEEK. "I always suspected that was the case," replied Foley's sister, Donna Winterson, according to Fordham. (Winterson could not be reached for comment.)

Last week Foley made good on his threat to unmask the man he says molested him when he was an altar boy in Lake Worth, Fla. Father Antonio Mercieca, now 72 and living on a tiny island near Malta, acknowledged to reporters that he and the teenage Foley skinny-dipped and were naked together in saunas--but said he never had sex with the boy. As church authorities barred Mercieca from practicing as a priest, Mercieca told NEWSWEEK, "I do not know why some things that happened 40 years ago are of interest to anyone now." What's of interest to voters now are Foley's sexually suggestive e-mails to House pages, and how his party handled the matter. With control of Congress at stake as midterms approach, it remains to be seen whether the tale of the altar boy and the priest will win any sympathy for the GOP.