Caught by paparazzi in the tender embrace of a woman on a Florida beach — is this how celebrity Catholic priest Alberto Cutie’s meteoric religious and multimedia career crashes down to earth?
Or does he emerge from a period of prayer and contemplation, humbled and chastened, renewing a vow of priestly celibacy he apparently violated — and only recently publicly questioned?
It’s Cutie’s call.
In a brief telephone interview Wednesday, a day after he was relieved of his duties at his Miami Beach parish and the church’s media arm, the internationally known priest and media personality said he was taking an indefinite leave for “personal reflection.”
Cutie, who issued a public apology Tuesday, declined to identify his companion in the published pictures or talk about their relationship.
“It would be inappropriate. To protect that person it’s best not to speak about that. It has been enough already. It has been too much for me and my family,” Cutie told El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald’s sister newspaper, for which he writes a weekly advice column.
Catholic Archdiocese officials said Wednesday that Cutie’s future is in his hands.
“Father Alberto is taking time to pray; how he proceeds is totally his choice,” said archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta. “He is a member of the clergy and, therefore, the archdiocese will assist him in his prayerful journey.”
“This is a conversation between a priest and his archbishop, like a conversation between a father and a son,” she said. “Now Father Albert has some prayerful time ahead of him.”
Just last week, in an interview with a Spanish-language Miami TV station, Cutie endorsed giving Catholic priests the choice to marry. He told the interviewer from WSBS-TV’s Paparazzi TV program, referring to church authorities: “If they want to discipline me, let them discipline me, but I think the option would be better and healthier.”
Paparazzi TV producers said Tuesday that they had been offered the photos of Cutie on the beach for purchase, but turned the offer down.
On Wednesday, the disgraced Cutie and his so-far-unidentified companion were probably the most sought-after couple in South Florida, as copies of the Mexican magazine that published the compromising photos hit local newsstands. One particularly attention-grabbing shot shows Cutie reaching into his companion’s swimsuit bottom.
The 40-year-old priest with youthful good looks and gelled hair remained in seclusion and off the air, while reporters fruitlessly tried to track down his female friend.
Cutie’s mother offered no clues, declining to talk about her son at her South Miami-Dade home.
Throwing her hands up in the air, Yolanda Cutie said in Spanish, with a sigh: ‘ “Cosas de la vida.” The expression roughly translates to “Things happen.”
Some followers of Cutie were not so sanguine.
“I feel very bad for his parents,” said Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s church in Miami Beach, Cutie’s one-time church. “It’s very hard on the community and the family. He’s a young, intelligent man. How could he do that? It’s a letdown for the community. It’s a letdown for the people that love him.”
But some parishioners, fans and celebrity friends emphatically defended Cutie on Wednesday. Next to his South Beach parish church, St. Francis de Sales, the doors of an apartment building kept swinging open as elderly women congregated outside to discuss the news.
“I would have condemned him if it would have been a young boy, but it was a woman,” said Zunilda Junco, 81, who attends the church frequently.
“He hasn’t killed anyone,” said Dominga Jimenez, 83. “Or raped anyone,” Junco responded.
Not only were many ready to forgive, but many also said they hope the priest’s misstep will bust open the long-simmering debate over the church’s ban on marriage for Catholic priests.
The blog generationmiami.com, which usually focuses on politics from a young Cuban-American and Democratic perspective, launched an online petition asking the Catholic archdiocese to reinstate Cutie promptly.
“To see him publicly chastised like this is harsh given the mildness of the infraction,” said generationmiami.com blogger and political activist Giancarlo Sopo, who describes himself as a practicing Catholic.
Sopo, who met Cutie while on the campaign trail last year, said the real culprit may be the church’s celibacy requirement.
“He struck me as such a good man. My opinion hasn’t changed,” Sopo said. “I found the public scolding by the church was harsher than the punishment for priests who are pedophiles.”
The Roman Catholic Church has left its celibacy policy virtually unchanged for the past 900 years, saying it allows for a dedication to God and the church without distraction.
On Wednesday, the Episcopal Church, which allows married priests, offered Cutie another option.
“He is welcome in our church,” Bishop Leo Frade of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida said in an interview. Frade said the church has young priests who date and about five former Catholic priests. “For us, a single guy on the beach with his girlfriend is no problem. Episcopalians look at this and scratch their heads.” Experts say violating the celibacy vow doesn’t necessarily end a priest’s career.
In the wake of dozens of sexual-abuse scandals, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops laid out rules for the defrocking of priests found guilty of sexual crimes. Yet experts say the is outcome is hazier for priests who have broken an internal church rule like the vow of celibacy as opposed to civil law.
“For the average priest, this isn’t something where somebody needs to be removed,” said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based group that advocates the ordination of women and the end of the celibacy rule. But with international fans and his print and radio presence, Cutie is far from average.
“In most cases, the priest meets with the bishop and is then given some time to sort out what his path is. Then, they make a decision for him to stay as a celibate priest or to leave the priesthood,” Schenk said.
Cutie, who made his fame counseling couples and marriages with communications problems and infidelity, seemed ready for a debate about celibacy last week. Standing on Lincoln Road Mall in South Beach, Cutie was interviewed by a Paparazzi TV reporter who asked for his view on Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who may have fathered several children while a clergyman.
“I think what we have to do as a church is, beyond understanding human weakness, is to open a path so that youngsters who want to marry and want to serve God can do so,” Cutie said.
‘What bothers me, for example, is a cardinal who retires — like the New York cardinal who retired recently — and the next day says, ‘Maybe, priests should be able to marry.’ Why didn’t you say that when you were cardinal? You waited to retire to say it. I think it must be said now. And so I’m saying it.”
The Miami Herald
Miami Herald reporters Jose Pagliery, Rebecca Dellagloria, Lydia Martin, Andres Viglucci, Trenton Daniel, Jaweed Kaleem and translator Renato Perez contributed to this report.
Copyright (c) 2009, The Miami Herald