Priest finds new love with wife, loses love for church

January 4, 2011

(RNS) The Rev. Albert Cutie saw a lot of things in his 14 years as a
Catholic priest while church officials looked the other way: priests who
got caught with prostitutes, priests who lived with their gay partners,
and men of the cloth who kept one bed in the rectory and another with
their mistress.

"In the Roman Catholic Church, a scandal is not really a scandal
until it becomes public," Cutie writes in his new book, "Dilemma: A
Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love," which hits stores Tuesday (Jan.
4).

Yet when he was caught by paparazzi canoodling with his girlfriend
on a Miami beach in 2009, Cutie was booted from his rectory, dropped
from his insurance plan and told he would no longer receive a paycheck.

The global television ministry that had earned him the nickname
"Father Oprah" and legions of fans across Miami and Latin America, was
over, he was told.

Within weeks, the priest whose made-for-Hollywood good looks
provided endless tabloid fodder left to become an Episcopal priest. He
later married his girlfriend, Ruhama Buni Canellis, and on Dec. 2, the
couple announced the birth of their first daughter, Camila Victoria.

As Cutie describes it in his book, his move to the Episcopal Church
was not as quick and convenient as it appeared. In fact, he says his
dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church had stewed for several years.

The scandal only intensified his disillusionment with a church he
now describes as "incompetent," "inhumane," "merciless" and an
"ideological dictatorship."

"The church doesn't need my help to tarnish its image," Cutie said
in an interview from his new office at the Episcopal Church of the
Resurrection near Miami. "The institution has done plenty to tarnish its
own image."

The book contains few saucy details about the relationship that
blossomed from friendship to romance over nearly a decade. Cutie writes
that he was instantly attracted to the shy single mother and was
grateful when he was transferred to another parish so he could focus on
work.

But as Cutie wrestled with the loneliness and high expectations of
the priesthood, he found himself stealing dates with Canellis at quiet
restaurants or movie theaters where they would not be seen.

"My life was all about work, but there was something in my life that
was missing, a big empty hole: intimacy," he said. "And I would ask
whether (celibacy) was really God's rule and what God wants or a
man-made rule and what the church wants."

The harsh treatment of priests who were ousted during the clergy
abuse scandal that erupted in 2002 only fueled Cutie's disillusionment,
and he knew that mandatory celibacy was part of the problem.

"This is one of the real scandals nobody wants to see in the church:
good people, mostly good men, who are so lonely on the inside that they
are often driven to satisfy basic human emotional and physical needs in
all the wrong ways," he writes.

He also struggled with church teaching against homosexuality,
divorce, women's ordination and denying Communion to non-Catholics. The
priestly fraternity he was promised, he said, was actually a club of
lonely ladder-climbers.

While Cutie protects the names of many in the church, he directs his
harshest criticism at retired Archbishop John Favalora, who he describes
as cold, rigid, arrogant, aloof and "disconnected and uninterested in my
life."

"The spiritual fatherhood of a bishop ... was something I
experienced through other bishops, but not from you personally," Cutie
wrote in a lengthy letter that he never sent to Favalora.

Officials at the Archdiocese of Miami declined to comment about
Cutie's book, and referred to a 2009 statement in which Favalora likened
Cutie to the Gospel parable of the prodigal son who eventually "came to
his senses."

Cutie, 41, actually began talks with the local Episcopal bishop
years before the paparazzi pictures forced him out of the church, and
said his transition was neither "easy nor quick."

"Yet the more I prayed and thought about the message of Jesus, the
more I realized that his is a message of inclusion, not exclusion; a
message of love, not rejection; a message of salvation, not
condemnation," he writes.

Cutie readily admits that he broke his vow of celibacy, and still
wrestles with the disappointment some former parishioners may feel. He
says he didn't write the book to settle scores, but out of "deep-rooted
disappointment" in an institution that he once believed held all the
answers.

"I don't think it's anger," he said. "I think its disappointment,
and sadness for the people who believe in an institution that isn't what
it proclaims to be."

His new Episcopal flock in Biscayne Park has grown from 28 to about
300 and he's finding his footing in marriage, fatherhood and 3 a.m.
feedings for his young daughter.

Marriage, he writes, has made him a better priest because "I feel
more connected to humanity," and an infant daughter and teenage stepson
have added a new understanding of the term "Father."

"I'm so blessed to be able to experience the gift of fathering a
child, knowing that I had convinced myself that I wasn't going to be
part of that experience," he said. "To be able to experience it, for me,
is a double blessing."