A 72-year-old Roman Catholic priest has admitted to a series of sexual encounters with a teenage Mark Foley, but denied the relationship was abusive.

The Daily Telegraph reports that Fr Anthony Mercieca became close to Foley while he was working as a priest at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth, Florida, in the late 1960s.

Disgraced Republican Congressman Foley was forced to resign after his lurid email and instant message contacts with teenage Congressional pages came to light last month.

Foley claimed that he had been molested by a clergyman between the ages of 13 and 15, and claimed to have an alcohol problem which caused him to act in an inappropriate manner towards the teenage pages.

He is now the subject of criminal and congressional investigations.

Fr Mercieca was named by Foley’s lawyers as the clergyman in question. But the priest has hit back at claims he is a predatory paedophile.

He told CNN: “Molestation can be many things, it depends how you take it. Once maybe I touched him but it’s not anything you’d call rape.”

The priest, who now lives in Malta, said that he had a two-year relationship with Foley, who was a teenage altar boy at the time.

Fr Mercieca admitted that he massaged Foley, that they went skinny-dipping together, visited saunas and shared hotel rooms. But he claims they never had sex.

“We trusted each other as brothers, and loved each other as brothers,” the priest said.

The Foley scandal has been a major embarrassment for the Republicans in the run-up to the November 7th elections.

The party are expected to lose seats, as Americans register their displeasure at the conduct of the war in Iraq.