WASHINGTON – Republicans sought cover Monday from the FBI probe of former Rep. Mark Foley’s sexual communications with underage male congressional pages, as the scandal’s aftershocks spread across the political world and conservative activists began talking about a possible shakeup of the House Republican leadership.

As Foley, a Florida Republican, entered an alcohol and behavioral rehabilitation program, legal experts said criminal prosecution isn’t a foregone conclusion. In some states, 16 is the age of sexual consent.

Yet in an ironic twist, federal laws championed by Foley himself make it a crime in some circumstances to use the Internet to persuade, induce or entice someone under 18 to engage in sexual activity.

While it hasn’t been proved that Foley engaged in sexual acts with anyone under 18, ABC News on Monday reported sexually charged instant-message exchanges in which Foley urged a former page to meet him and referred to a prior meeting between them in California.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., called a news conference on Capitol Hill to state unequivocally that no one in the party leadership knew until late last week of Foley’s “vile and repulsive” instant messages, which ABC published online and which included explicit dialogue about masturbation. He said he wanted to find out who did know.

Hastert asked the Justice Department on Sunday to investigate not only Foley’s actions, but what anyone in Congress knew about them.

Hastert has been under fire since Foley’s abrupt resignation Friday. Hastert then suggested he was just learning there was a problem. But Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the GOP’s congressional campaign committee, has said he made Hastert aware of the situation months ago.

The head of the House Page Board, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., acknowledged learning late last year, along with the House clerk, that Foley had sent a former page an e-mail that wasn’t sexually explicit but that asked personal questions that made the young man uncomfortable. Shimkus told Foley to stop communicating with the young man, but didn’t share the information with his fellow Page Board members.

None of the Republican leaders acknowledged knowing about the sexually explicit messages.

Democrats are accusing Republicans of an election-year cover-up.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., a member of the House Page Board who said Shimkus didn’t inform him about Foley’s e-mail, accused Republicans of being “more concerned with finding political cover for themselves than with the safety and well-being of the House pages.”

Shimkus said the young man’s parents didn’t want to pursue an investigation and that Foley was questioned, professed innocent motives and agreed not to contact the young man again.

Several conservative leaders voiced anger that House Republican leaders knew they had a potential predator in their ranks and didn’t take it more seriously.

“After the elections, if the Republicans are still in power, this may signal a change in the leadership, if it appears they knew more than they have reported to us,” said Mike Mears, executive director of Concerned Women for America’s political action committee.

Richard A. Viguerie, a leader of the conservative movement for decades, suggested that Hastert’s call for a Justice Department investigation “could be part of an effort to cover this up until after the election.”

He called for the immediate resignation of any House leader who knew of improper conduct and didn’t act.

Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, said Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner, Shimkus and Reynolds have “some serious explaining to do.”

David Keene of the American Conservative Union said he doubts that Hastert had any idea of the extent of Foley’s communications, but that Hastert nevertheless may pay a political price for not acting sooner.

Republican congressional candidates across the country feared the controversy’s potential to depress conservative turnout at the polls in November or sway independent voters toward Democrats.

Republican Vern Buchanan, in a competitive Florida race to succeed Rep. Katherine Harris of Sarasota, gave to charity $2,000 that Foley’s political action committee had contributed to his campaign. Buchanan’s Democratic opponent, Christine Jennings, called it disconcerting to find Buchanan “in such a small group of recipients to benefit from Mark Foley’s PAC.”

Rep. Clay Shaw, a Fort Lauderdale Republican in a tight race, is donating $2,000 from Foley’s campaign and political action committee to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said, “No one is going to mistake Clay Shaw for Mark Foley,” but acknowledged that the scandal “has completely eaten up the news cycle.”

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow initially minimized the scandal in an interview with CNN.

“Look, I hate to tell you, but it’s not always pretty up there on Capitol Hill, and there have been other scandals, as you know, that have been more than simply naughty e-mails,” he said.

But he backed away from that line later, telling White House reporters, “Look, this is an awful and disturbing story. … I think people are trying to put us in a box, and say, you know what, unless you come out and you condemn Denny Hastert, you’re saying that this behavior is acceptable. It’s not.”

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a liberal watchdog group, said it asked the FBI to investigate non-explicit e-mails between Foley and a former page back in July, after a “third party” made the e-mails available to the group. CREW asked Monday for the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate why the FBI didn’t act. An FBI spokesman wouldn’t comment, except to confirm that an investigation had been launched.

John Pierce, a former federal prosecutor of 14 years now in private practice, said if a crime was committed, the Justice Department could investigate members of Congress for knowing about a “commission of a felony” and failing to report it. However, Pierce expressed doubts that Hastert would have called for such a probe if he believed there was a cover-up within his party’s ranks.

Barry Coburn, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, said the allegations didn’t clearly present solicitation of a minor.

“It might have been clearly inappropriate, and it might yet conceivably turn out to be something short of criminal solicitation,” he said.

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