Scandal priest Father Cutie goes over to the other side

Florida is gripped by a tale with a heady mix of sex, sand, God, celebrity and celibacy
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The Independent US

It will be standing – or kneeling – room only at the Church of the Resurrection in Miami when America's most famous Catholic Casanova, Alberto Cutie, makes a guest appearance this morning to deliver the sermon. Never mind that this particular congregation is not actually Catholic. Since Thursday, he hasn't been with Rome either.

Happily, Fr Cutie, always dashing in his dog collar, has never been averse to publicity. So great was his following on Spanish-language television and radio where he dispensed advice on God, love, and relationships, that he earned the nickname Padre Oprah. Yet right now he is at the centre of a national kerfuffle of a scope even he would surely never have wished for. But it's what happens when you juggle sex, celibacy and the church.

This charismatic priest famously took his secret girlfriend, a divorced mother, to a public Florida beach and frolicked with her on the sand. This was a month ago, the scene was illicitly photographed and the images published on the pages of a Mexican tabloid. Before you could say "vows", Fr Cutie, 40, was forced to give up his Miami Beach parish.

Barely had the Catholic community of south Florida recovered, when a surprise press conference was called on Thursday by Bishop Leo Frade of the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Miami. Fr Cutie was switching sides, leaving the Catholic faith to join the Episcopal Church, which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Episcopalians, of course, don't mind their priests canoodling, marrying even. Saying he had gone through a "spiritual and deep ideological struggle," Fr Cutie said he was "continuing the call to spread God's love" and paid tribute to the spiritual home he was fleeing. "I will always love the Catholic Church and all its members who are committed in their faith and have enriched my life in so many ways," he said.

While it will be a year before Fr Cutie can officiate formally at Episcopalian services, the fall-out from the affair has been immediate. "Fr Cutie is removing himself from full communion with the Catholic Church and thereby forfeiting his rights as a cleric," boomed the leader of Floridian Catholics, Archbishop John Favalora, who added that the priest remains "bound by his promise to live a celibate life, which he freely embraced at ordination. Only the Holy Father can release him from that obligation."

Bishop Frade begged to differ. "That promise is not recognised by our church. If you can find it in the Bible that priests should be celibate, that will be corrected," he said, acknowledging that the saga was straining relations between the two churches in Florida. "The only thing we can say is that we pray for ecumenical relations. I am sorry, they are sorry, and we love them."

The affair has inevitably rekindled debate across America about celibacy in the church. How lasting or profound it will be remains to be seen. "The departure of a single priest – no matter how popular or influential – from the Catholic Church is unlikely to make the church revamp its 1,000 (or 900 or 1,100 or 1,200, depending on what history you accept) -year-old rule," the Rev James Martin wrote in the Catholic weekly America.

The recruitment of Father Oprah, a Cuban-American born in Puerto Rico, could prove a boon for the Episcopalians who are hoping it will help swell their congregations with members of the fast-growing (and overwhelmingly Catholic) Hispanic community in Florida and elsewhere. It promises also to be good news for Ruhama Buni Canellis, the 35-year-old woman of the scandal with sand between her toes.

The father has said little about his intentions but tantalisingly dropped the word "fiancée" into his remarks on Thursday. If there is to be a marriage, perhaps he will confirm it from the pulpit this morning.