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U.S. House leaders may have delayed taking action against former Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley because they were afraid of appearing anti-gay, according to Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Utah's senator called Foley's sexually explicit e-mails and instant messages to congressional pages "abysmal" and inexcusable, but he also defended House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who has drawn repeated criticism for not acting on concerns brought to his office earlier.

Hatch's defense, presented to the Tribune editorial board earlier this week, centered on how busy Hastert is as the Republican leader in the House.

But he also said: "I don't know anybody today in the Congress who wants to act or be homophobic, so that may be part of the problem here."

Hatch's campaign opponent, Democrat Pete Ashdown, bristled at Hatch's remarks.

"I think it is ridiculous," he said. "Protecting children has nothing to do with homosexuality."

Equality Utah, a gay rights organization, also doesn't buy Hatch's explanation.

"It's interesting that Senator Hatch and other members of Congress would express a concern about being homophobic when they have supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage. Do they not consider that be homophobic?" asked Mike Thompson, Equality Utah's executive director.

Foley resigned in September after sexually explicit instant messages he sent to a male page were made public. Since then, House Republicans have been embroiled in a scandal that may cripple their bid to hold the majority.

Hastert has been at the center of the controversy, since some lawmakers have said they relayed concerns over Foley's messages with pages and former pages years ago.

While Hatch may defend Hastert, most Utahns want to see him punished, according to a recent poll conducted by Survey USA on behalf of KSL TV.

The poll of 500 people said that 68 percent don't believe House leaders did enough when they learned of allegations against Foley, with 28 percent believing Hastert should resign his leadership posts and another 34 percent saying he should leave Congress.

The FBI and a House ethics investigation are looking into Foley's actions and the response of House leaders.

"There were mistakes made in my opinion that were human mistakes, but I think they are now approaching it in an intelligent way," Hatch said.

Ashdown said if those investigations find that Hastert didn't act quickly enough, then "he should be removed."

But until the investigations are done, Ashdown doesn't want to make a judgment.

"I'm not gong to be judge and jury on Hastert," he said.

Earlier this year, Hatch teamed with Foley to pass a child sex offender bill, requiring a nationwide database. Convicted sex offenders who fail to register could be charged with a felony.

The irony hasn't escaped Hatch.

"Here is a man who has co-sponsored the sex offender bill. He may very well be the first person prosecuted under that bill."