The Rev. Albert Cutié has a new book out this week and parts of it offer a scorching indictment of the Roman Catholic Church. But, just a minute, he'd first like to show you pictures of his new baby girl Camila, born on Dec. 2, especially the one of her asleep on his chest with an adorable white bow around her head. "The first time I held her," says Cutié, "I said, 'Oh my God, why didn't I do this sooner?' "
He knows that's what the media were asking more than a year and a half ago: If Cutié really wanted the love of a woman and the epiphany of his own children, why didn't he just say so and leave the celibate Catholic priesthood? Why did he wait for the paparazzi to force his hand in May 2009, when a Mexican celebrity magazine published some steamy photos of the handsome Miami priest, the "Father Oprah" of Spanish-language television and radio talk shows, cuddling on the beach and at restaurants with his sweetheart?
Cutié, 41, now an Episcopal priest, hopes to answer that question in Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love (Celebra; 320 pages; $25.95), on sale Jan. 4. In an interview with TIME, Cutié admits that "I not only disappointed others but also myself" by leading a double life as famous pastor and furtive paramour. Yet most Catholics, who continue dealing with crises like clerical sexual abuse of minors, shrugged at his indiscretion; and Cutié just as rightly notes that "there are much bigger problems in the church" than his otherwise healthy relationship with a consenting adult. Cutié's tell-all saves its harshest censure not for the gossip rags (which he all but thanks for outing him) but for the Catholic hierarchy's retro hypocrisies especially celibacy, which he posits, based on a flood of letters he's since received from priests, is a promise broken by many if not most clerics (some promiscuously) as they combat the loneliness it can breed. The church is "disconnected from the very people it was meant to serve," he writes, and it acted more distressed by his peccadillo than by "the truly criminal, outrageous and blatantly immoral behavior" of pedophile priests.
Cutié critics will argue that he's attacking the church to deflect attention from, if not to rationalize, his own dishonest actions and that he stayed in the priesthood as long as he did because he was as much in love with his talk-show renown as he was with his covert girlfriend, Ruhama Canellis, now his wife. But Cutié, who insists "celebrity is not essential to who I am," writes in Dilemma that he instead felt boxed in by his notoriety. Because Latino Catholics admired "Padre Alberto" in the 2000s as much as U.S. Catholics admired Bishop Fulton Sheen in the 1950s, "I knew that if I left the church for this woman, I would shake the faith and trust of many, many people. I couldn't make myself do that yet."
Either way, Dilemma makes fairly clear that Cutié and the Catholic priesthood weren't the divine fit they seemed on TV. As a young seminarian, Cutié tells TIME, "I had a romantic image of that institution," one that was fired by the vigorous, saintly auras of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. But Cutié's Cuban-exile parents, their memories of the Castro dictatorship all too fresh, had also taught him the value of questioning authority. Eventually, he writes, as he watched his corporate-minded, image-obsessed superiors in Miami turn their backs on parishes tainted by priestly sexual-abuse charges and where in some cases they sent Cutié to clean up the mess "I had to ask myself, 'Albert, what are you doing in this inflexible, dictatorial and merciless institution?'"
Cutié, whose religious talk-show career took off around 2000 with programs like Cambia Tu Vida Con Padre Alberto (Change Your Life With Father Albert), suggests that the television studio became his refuge. In contrast to dogmatically rigid Catholic TV hosts like Mother Angelica, he writes, "I didn't want my ministry to be black-and-white" (even though one of his shows was broadcast on her dogmatically fossilized EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network). On air and in his 2006 book, Real Life, Real Love, his style was more counselor than confessor, which made him all the more popular with Catholics grown weary of Rome's doctrinal intolerance on issues ranging from divorce to homosexuality, from abortion to women's ordination.
And he was popular with women, who often called the hunk in a collar Father Cutie (even though his name is pronounced Koo-tee-ay) or Father What-a-Waste. Which makes it less surprising that he began to question the church's controversial celibacy requirement for priests. Cutié emphasizes that he's not against celibacy per se, but believes it should be optional, especially for parish priests, as it was at the church's founding. "Please, the first 40 Popes were married," says Cutié, noting that the ban on clerical sex and marriage was one of the many misogynist constructs of the medieval church.
Cutié's doubts overflowed when he met Canellis, an attractive divorcée and single mother who was a member of his Miami Beach parish. During Mass, Cutié writes, "I couldn't help but sneak looks at her," and their friendship morphed into romance one night in the early 2000s with a "very strong" goodnight kiss in his car. "Despite all I had been taught by the church that these feelings were sinful for a priest to have," he writes, "I knew that this love was so good that it must have come from God."
But at that point, Cutié tells TIME, he didn't trust then Miami Archbishop John Favalora or any superior enough to confide in them even though he believes his relationship with Canellis made him a better priest. "I felt much more humane and apostolic," he says, noting that most of Jesus' apostles were married. "Being a priest is supposed to be about getting out among people, knowing their lives. This made me feel so much closer to them, more than my TV work did."
The church didn't see it that way when the photos, one of which showed Cutié's hand roaming down Canellis' swimsuit, hit the newsstands and Internet. Cutié was the first Miami priest whom Favalora ordained, in 1995, so the priest understood that the Archbishop would feel blindsided by the revelation of his love affair. Still, precisely because of his long relationship with Favalora, as well as the tireless pastoral and media work Cutié had done for him, Cutié was stunned at how coldly he feels the prelate disowned and publicly denounced him. Favalora paid out millions of dollars in sexual-abuse settlements; yet Cutié had "never heard him 'apologize on behalf of the Church of Miami'" for those cases the way he apologized for the Cutié scandal. (Favalora, now retired, in fact had apologized for them in 2003.)
That sealed Cutié's decision to go Episcopal. Dilemma, as a result, is sure to reheat the debate about celibacy, especially amid the Vatican's campaign to replenish its ever shrinking clerical ranks with married Anglican and Episcopal priests defecting to Catholicism. But just as important, Cutié makes it clear why Catholics shouldn't confuse their checkered church with their religion. In reality, Catholicism encourages the kind of independent thinking that suffuses his book conscientious human reason, not hoary Vatican doctrine, as the doorway to faith. "I made a promise to be a celibate," he writes in Dilemma, but experienced "transformations, personal ideological struggles, and growth. None of us can be frozen in time." Not even the Catholic Church.