Correction Appended: May 14, 2009
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 Cutié, 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 fraganti" shots, the woman wraps her legs around Cutié; in another, Cutié has a hand down her swimsuit, fondling her rear end.
Because of the scandal, the Archdiocese of Miami says Cutié, 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 Cutié asking forgiveness. (See the 25 most influential Evangelicals in America.)
Most Catholics probably don't approve of Cutié's affair. Still, will they back the archdiocese? Cutié'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 Cutié's actions "cannot be condoned despite the good work he's done as a priest." (See pictures of a Catholic congregation fighting to save its church building.)
But Cutié'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 Archdiocese of Miami has had to pay out millions of dollars in sexual-abuse settlements in recent years including a case involving a former priest at Cutié's South Beach church, St. Francis de Sales. (One of Cutié's tasks, in fact, has been to heal the wounds at that parish.) To his credit, Favalora is trying to restore public trust in his archdiocese and the church. But so long as Cutié wasn't frolicking with a minor (female or male) 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 of consent. (Read about the heartthrob of the Vatican.)
What's more, one of the pillars of Cutié'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, Cutié's romantic romp might just make him a more appealing priest more human, perhaps, than Catholic clergy who deny communion to divorcées, 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 Cutié 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 Cutié isn't surprising, either. Cutié'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 Cutié 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 (Change Your Life With Father Alberto), he remarked to the Miami Herald that celibacy is a "struggle, but it's a good struggle."
It was a battle that Cutié was perhaps destined to lose, not just because of his good looks but his celebrity. In the chaste, preVatican 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 Cutié was never a shy altar boy to begin with. Born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents, he was a popular DJ as a teen, and still likes disco music and getting buff in the gym.
That's not to say, however, that Cutié is a liberal priest. His current television show, Hablando Con Padre Alberto (Talking With Father Alberto), airs on the conservative Catholic network EWTN (Eternal World Television Network), which was founded by the engaging but dogmatically stern nun Mother Angelica. Last December Cutié 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 (Radio Peace) network and in his columns and books, like Ama de Verdad, Vive de Verdad (Real Love, Real Life), Cutié usually toes the Vatican's doctrinal line on issues like abortion.
Nonetheless, the Cutié 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. (See the recent paternity-suit travails of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who has admitted to fathering a child and is alleged to have sired others while he was still a priest.) A bigger problem for the church, however, may be Cutié's Oprah-like standing in the Latino community the only demographic where 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 Cutié is more well regarded among Catholics than they are, especially among Latinos, meaning the hierarchy will probably need to handle the telepriest's future with special care.
For his part, Cutié 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, Cutié's Miami Catholic friend notes that the priest and the church both 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, Favalora 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 Cutié for tasting forbidden fruit, they may not condemn him as harshly as the church thinks they should either.
The original version of this article wrongly took to task the Mexican celebrity magazine TVnotas for its use of the term "in fragranti" instead of "in flagrante." The term the magazine actually, and rightly, used was "in fraganti," which can be Mexican slang for "caught red-handed."