If only it were the worst thing that a Roman Catholic priest has been caught doing. The Mexican celebrity magazine TVnotas recently published 25 paparazzi photos of the Rev. Alberto CutiÃ©, the popular Miami Beach priest famous for his Spanish-language television and radio talk shows, cavorting amorously on a Florida beach with an attractive woman. Over a three-day period, the pictures also captured him kissing her in a bar. In one of TVnotas’s “in fragranti” shots [Note to TVnotas copy editors: it’s “in flagrante”] the woman wraps her legs around CutiÃ©; in another, CutiÃ© has a hand down her swimsuit, fondling her rear end.
Because of the scandal, the Archdiocese of Miami says CutiÃ©, 40, is no longer the administrator of his Miami Beach parish, and it has barred him from leading Sunday mass there. His media work seems up in the air now, and the popular website padrealberto.net has only a blue screen with a message from CutiÃ© asking forgiveness.
Most Catholics probably don’t approve of CutiÃ©’s affair. Still, will they back the archdiocese CutiÃ©’s punishment is understandable at first glance, at least for his hypocrisy if not for the betrayal of his oath of celibacy. To the Catholic Church, priestly ordination means a marriage vow to the church the “bride of Christ.” In a statement, Miami Archbishop John Favalora said CutiÃ©’s actions “cannot be condoned despite the good work he’s done as a priest.”
But Cutie’s penalty might elicit more than a few snickers from Catholics who have spent the past few decades watching the priestly perdition parade of sexual abuse, parish embezzlement and doctrinal intolerance. The Miami archdiocese has had to pay out millions of dollars in sexual-abuse settlements in recent years including a case involving a former priest at CutiÃ©’s South Beach church, St. Francis de Sales. To his credit, Favarola is trying to restore
public trust in his archdiocese and the Church. But so long as CutiÃ© wasn’t
frolicking with a minor or using parish funds to buy
margaritas for his paramour, many parishioners may actually be relieved that
their popular priest has a libido focused on a woman who has reached the age
What’s more, one of the pillars of CutiÃ©’s popularity is his relationship counseling. To any Catholic who’s had to suffer through a lecture on marriage from a celibate kid just out of seminary, CutiÃ©’s romantic romp might just make him a more appealing priest more human, perhaps, than Catholic clergy who deny communion to divorcees, gays and anyone else who dares violate the Church’s litany of “non-negotiable” rules. “He was doing this fairly out in the open,” notes one Miami Catholic who knows CutiÃ© well and has undergone marriage counseling with him. “Most priests who do this usually try to hide it, but this wasn’t some dirty little tryst in the back of the parish residence. It doesn’t appear to be just about sex; it’s about intimacy, and he’s always been able to help people understand which is more important.”
The attraction of the unidentified woman in the photos to CutiÃ© isn’t surprising, either. CutiÃ©’s last name is pronounced koo-tee-AY, but that hasn’t stopped people from calling the handsome, telegenic priest “Father Cutie” the kind of hunk-in-a-collar whom smitten Catholic schoolgirls often nickname “Father What-a-Waste.” In 1999, when he burst onto the scene just four years after his ordination with his first television talk show on the Spanish-language Telemundo network, Cambia Tu Vida Con Padre Alberto , he remarked to the Miami Herald that celibacy is “a struggle, but it’s a good struggle.”
It was a battle that CutiÃ© was perhaps destined to lose, not just because of his good looks but his celebrity. In the chaste, pre-Vatican II culture of the 1950s, no one would have dared wonder if a priestly TV phenom like Bishop Fulton Sheen had a girlfriend. But today, the temptations for an attractive media star, ordained or not, are greater especially in the narcissistic Gomorrah of South Beach. And CutiÃ© was never a shy altar boy to begin with. Born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents, he was a popular deejay as a teen, and he still likes disco music and getting buff in the gym.
That’s not to say, however, that CutiÃ© is a liberal priest. His current television talk show, Hablando Con Padre Alberto , is aired on the conservative Catholic network EWTN founded by the engaging but dogmatically stern nun, Mother Angelica. Last December he blasted Playboy’s Mexican edition for what he called a “blasphemous” cover photo that depicted a model as the Virgin Mary. On his shows on the Radio Paz network, and in his columns and books, such as Ama de Verdad, Vive de Verdad , CutiÃ© usually toes the Vatican’s doctrinal line on issues like abortion.
Nonetheless, the CutiÃ© scandal is sure to ratchet up debate over clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church, a spiritual ideal that seems to collide more often today with biological reality. A bigger problem for the Church, however, may be CutiÃ©’s Oprah-like standing in the Latino community the only demographic where the U.S. Catholicism is experiencing growth. America’s Catholic bishops, many of whom are widely accused of allowing the sexual abuse crisis to happen, must realize that CutiÃ© is more well regarded among Catholics than they are, especially among Latinos, meaning the hierarchy will probably need to handle the tele-priest’s future with special care.
For his part, CutiÃ© said in his statement that “the commitment I made to serve God will remain intact,” a vague message that left many of his parishioners wondering if he plans to stay in the priesthood. Regardless, CutiÃ©’s Miami Catholic friend notes that the priest, and the Church, need to recognize “that there’s another human being involved in this, the woman in the pictures, and if they’re not sensitive to her as well they’re looking at double the scandal.”
In his statement, Favarola said, “Scandals such as this offer an occasion for the Church on all levels to examine our consciences regarding the integrity of our commitments.” He’s right; but scandals like this also prompt Catholics to more closely and critically examine the battered integrity of their Church. And while they may not applaud CutiÃ© for tasting forbidden fruit, they may not condemn him as harshly as the Church thinks they should either.