By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009
His audience is reportedly in the tens of millions. His relationship advice in his books, TV and radio shows has spurred the nickname "Father Oprah." Hispanic Catholics and believers across Latin America follow the handsome priest whose parish is the Miami beachfront. But will the Rev. Alberto Cutié actually shift the centuries-old debate on celibacy?
The argument was in full bloom yesterday on Hispanic radio, in newspapers and on the Web over the case of Cutié (pronounced koo-tee-AY), whose Web site, media ministries and parish assignment were shut down yesterday by his superiors after the release this week of steamy photos of him kissing and caressing a bikinied brunette on a Florida beach.
Cutié's case was among the most e-mailed stories yesterday by El Universal, one of Mexico's largest newspapers. People prayed about it at the chapel at WACC Radio Paz in Miami, where Cutié, 40, was director of the archdiocese's Catholic TV and radio operations. Pedro Biaggi, who runs the Washington area's biggest Spanish-language radio show, said his lines were jammed for two hours with people quoting Scripture and empathizing with the Cuban American priest with the dark hair and his right hand in the unnamed brunette's bikini bottom. Calls were running 80 to 2 in support of the celebrity priest, Biaggi said.
"It wasn't a joke -- there was a high level of profoundness. People were very serious, asking: 'Are we not being realistic with the way we are flesh?' " Biaggi said. "There was an immense pouring of love for him."
No hard data were immediately available, but public comments about the case showed most people supporting Cutié. He issued a statement that ran on Telemundo saying he has long tried to combat "temptation" with exercise, prayer and a balanced life. "It has not been easy," he said.
Cutié has made a specialty of immersing himself in questions about relationships, sexuality and morality, in his latest book, "Real Life, Real Love," and comments in many interviews about how a celibate priest resonates in a resort famous for tiny swimsuits and hedonistic living.
"Rather than fighting this reality, you want to inspire people on a personal level to live the best way they can," he told the Miami Herald in a 2005 profile of his work as head of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church. "I constantly tell people that the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners."
Cutié, who was born in Puerto Rico to Cuban American parents, moved to Miami when he was 7 and was ordained a priest in 1993. His public persona took off in 1998 when he began headlining a talk show on Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language content distributor in the world. The show ran throughout the United States and Latin America for three years and according to the Web site Beliefnet, the various talk show programs he's hosted reached some 24 million people in 22 countries.
His popularity was obvious yesterday in comments on Univision and Telemundo, as most writers lashed out at the Catholic Church for what people described as a denial of human nature in the priesthood.
"Priests are representatives of God within the church. Outside the church they are human beings with human needs." "Stupid religion. No one should deny carnal pleasures to a man." "He feels in love and we have no reason to judge him."
In a statement, Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora said he was "deeply saddened" by the photos of Cutié, which appeared in the Mexican celebrity magazine TV Notas.
"Father Cutié made a promise of celibacy and all priests are expected to fulfill that promise with the help of God," Favalora said. "Father Cutié's actions cannot be condoned despite the good works he has done as a priest." Archdiocesan spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said Cutié now is on "a prayerful journey. . . . He's going to use his time to figure out what he wants to do" and may leave the priesthood.
The apparent public support for Cutié mirrors polling on celibacy and the priesthood. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year found that 36 percent of Catholics favored the church's policy, while 60 percent opposed it. Peruvian author and television host Jaime Bayly told 24 Horas Libre that there is nothing "immoral or perverted" about being a young man "healthy with desires. He is perfectly capable of loving and serving God, and loving a woman."
Not everyone was swooning. The well-known Peruvian television talk show host Laura Bozzo was quoted on the popular Spanish-language Web site, Terra.com, saying she was "sickened" by the photos. Salvadoran Web site Lapagina.com.sv ran the headline "Father Alberto found his Mary Magdalene . . . on the beach."
For his part, Cutié, who did not return e-mailed requests for an interview, heaped a little fuel on the fire. In his statement on Telemundo's site, he said he took "full responsibility [and had] behaved badly." But years of exploring the lives of priests had left him "more sensitive to all this pain and the need of the Church to reform itself."
Staff writers Jacqueline L. Salmon, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Carlos Lozada, polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.