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Popular priest who strayed with divorced woman ignites celibacy debate

For the past decade, he was the face of the modern Roman Catholic Church in South Florida.

A dashing priest and charismatic TV talk show host, his Cuban heritage and bilingual skills made Father Alberto Cutié the perfect package for a church struggling to find new recruits.

Then a week ago, photos appeared in the tabloid press showing Cutié entwined in the sand with a 35-year-old divorced woman. One photo showed his hand down the back of her single-piece bathing suit, while another showed them kissing at a beachfront bar.

The photos left little in doubt regarding the status of his priestly vows of celibacy. The Catholic Church quickly relieved Cutié (pronounced KOO-tee-ay) of his duties at St. Francis de Sales on Miami Beach, as well as the church radio station. His weekly newspaper column was canceled.

But unlike most "fallen" priests who are quickly shuffled off into obscurity, Cutié is media savvy and has strong community ties. While he has yet to make a decision about his future, the celebrity status which the church happily helped foster over the past decade could convert him into a major thorn in its side.

"Because he's so publicly successful as a minister, and now so publicly conflicted, he's created a problem," said Richard Hasselbach, a former Franciscan in Carmel, N.Y., who was forced out after he decided to marry. "The church really has no mechanism to deal with this."

So far the Miami Archdiocese has chosen to abide strictly by church rules. "Father Cutié made a promise of celibacy, and all priests are expected to fulfill that promise with the help of God," wrote Miami Archbishop John Favalora (formerly the bishop in the Diocese of St. Petersburg).

But the photos — 25 in all — have ignited a long-standing debate over celibacy, and the church's refusal to allow priests to have sex and marry. In a Miami Herald poll, 77 percent said the Catholic Church should reconsider celibacy.

Priests are typically given two options, leave the priesthood or go into religious rehab. "You feel like a pariah," said Hasselbach. "The institution does everything in their power to isolate and discredit you. They tell you you can't preach anymore."

Hasselbach retrained as a lawyer, though he continues to minister as an independent priest, and belongs to CITI Ministries, a group of like-minded priests whose name stands for Celibacy Is The Issue. The group operates a Web site, Rent-A-Priest, and has an 800 number, with 250 members nationwide, drawn from an estimated 20,000 married priests in the United States with secular jobs.

Cutié, 40, has more options than most.

"The church needs to be very careful," said Joe Garcia, a prominent political activist and parishioner at one of the churches where Cutié served. "He could start his own congregation in a different denomination if he chose to. He could pull it off."

That's something the church can ill afford. The number of Catholic priests in the United States has fallen 30 percent in the past 40 years, according to studies. In 2008, more than 3,000 parishes were without resident priests.

Cutié would likely be loath to leave South Florida. He grew up in Miami and first made his name as a teen DJ, hosting a weekly music show on public radio. His rise was meteoric after joining the church, filling pews and collection trays wherever he went.

He also hosts his own Oprah-like TV show, Padre Alberto, for which the church receives an honorarium from the TV stations that broadcasts it.

A potential tell-all book deal could become a bible for the anticelibacy cause. He already has one bestseller under his belt, aptly titled, Real Life, Real Love.

Dozens of Cutié's supporters turned out at an emotional rally in Miami Beach on Thursday, carrying posters and chanting: "I admire, respect and forgive Father Alberto."

His defiance, though, has riled some who say he let the church down by not coming forward before he was caught on the beach.

In his first TV interview last week, Cutié was asked if he felt any guilt. "Do I feel bad, horrible? No. I am a man. Under this cassock there are pants," he said.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

Popular priest who strayed with divorced woman ignites celibacy debate 05/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 4:52pm]
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