‘Sarasota’ Editor Defends Foley Story In Wake Of Priest’s Criticism

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By: Joe Strupp

The Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune this afternoon stood by its story about a priest who had an intimate relationship with disgraced former Congressman Mark Foley — after the priest complained to the Associated Press that the paper “exaggerated” the relationship.

Chris Davis, investigations editor for the Herald-Tribune, also criticized AP for initially writing about the priest’s reaction to the story without seeking comment from the paper. “I wish they had contacted us first,” Davis told E&P. “The tone that comes across in their story might lead you to believe our story was exaggerated when it wasn’t. If they had called us first, the tone of their story might have changed.”

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said AP contacted the paper and included comment from Executive Editor Mike Connelly in updated versions of the story today. “It was all breaking this morning,” said Carroll. “There may have been some time when it was on the wire without their comment, but they were properly displayed in the story.”

She said the first comments from the paper were added in just 50 minutes after the first AP report was released.

Earlier versions of the AP story included no statement about trying to reach the Herald-Tribune or any comment from the paper, but a later version provided by AP had Connelly saying his paper’s story was accurate and that “the reporter talked to the priest four times yesterday and carefully reviewed his account, especially of the one night.”

The original Herald-Tribune story, written by Matthew Doig and Maurice Tammann, ran in today’s paper and revealed the identity of Anthony Mercieca as the priest with whom Foley had engaged in an “intimate two-year relationship.” The story indicated that the reporters had contacted Mercieca, a former Florida-area priest, at his home in Europe.

“Mercieca described a series of encounters that he said Foley might perceive as sexually inappropriate,” the story stated. “Among them: massaging Foley while the boy was naked, skinny-dipping together at a secluded lake in Lake Worth and being naked in the same room on overnight trips.”

The Herald-Tribune story also stated that Mercieca revealed that one night the priest “was in a drug-induced stupor, there was an incident he says he can’t clearly remember that might have gone too far.”

The AP story quotes Mercieca as confirming he had had a relationship with Foley that included spending time naked together, but notes in the lead he “denied the two had sex.” AP also quoted Mercieca as saying the Herald-Tribune “wrote many things that I didn’t say.”

Davis said Mercieca has yet to contact the newspaper seeking any kind of clarification or correction. Davis also points out that the Herald-Tribune never reported that the two had actually had sex.

“The way he characterized what we wrote was incorrect,” said Davis. “that we reported he had a one-night stand. We did not. I think we accurately reported what he told us.”

Davis said Doig contacted AP today but did not seek a correction or clarification. Instead, the newspaper sought to point out that the paper never reported Mercieca admitting to a sexual relationship. “We clarified our position in more detail,” Davis said.

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