Straying media priest sparks debate on clerical celibacy


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 is in full bloom on Hispanic radio, in papers and on the web over the case of Cutié , whose website, media ministries and parish assignment were shut down on Wednesday by his superiors after this week's release 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 on Wednesday 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 empathising with the Cuban-American priest. Calls were running 80 to 2 in support of the celebrity priest, Biaggi said.

"People were very serious, asking: 'Are we not being realistic with the way we are flesh?'" Biaggi said. Public comments 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.

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, born in Puerto Rico to Cuban-American parents, moved to Miami at seven and was ordained a priest in 1993. His public persona took off in 1998 with his talk show on Telemundo, the world's second-largest Spanish-language content distributor. The show ran throughout the United States and Latin America for three years, and reached some 24 million people in 22 countries.

His popularity was obvious this week in comments on Univision and Telemundo, as most writers lashed out at the Catholic Church for what people described as a denial of priests' human nature.

Miami archbishop John Favalora said he was "deeply saddened". "Fr Cutié made a promise of celibacy and all priests are expected to fulfil that promise with the help of God," Favalora said. 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 36 per cent of Catholics favoured the church's policy, while 60 per cent opposed it.

- ( LA Times-Washington Post)