Florida Priest Photographed With Woman Leaves Church

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A popular priest known as "Father Oprah" has left the Roman Catholic Church and joined the Episcopal Church less than a month after a tabloid published photos of him cavorting on the beach with his girlfriend in a scandal that rocked South Florida's Spanish-speaking community.

On Thursday, as thunder boomed outside and paparazzi cameras flashed, the Rev. Alberto Cutie held a news conference at the pulpit of the Episcopal Church's Trinity Cathedral. Standing behind him: the Episcopal bishop, a half-dozen Episcopal priests and his girlfriend.

He did not talk about his relationship with the woman, who has been identified in local media as 35-year-old divorcee Ruhama Buni Canellis, or if he has plans to marry her. He did say in a statement that he "began to have spiritual and deep ideological struggles" and "has seen the ways that many of my brothers serve God as married men, with the blessing of forming a family."

Cutie was removed from his Miami Beach Catholic church after photos of him smooching and embracing a woman appeared in the pages of a Spanish-language magazine earlier this month. With his leading man good looks, appearances in local newspapers' social pages and as the host of a TV show, Cutie is one of South Florida's most recognizable characters.

Cutie is scheduled to deliver a sermon this Sunday at his new church, which received him in a ceremony Thursday, but must complete other requirements before serving as an Episcopal priest.

The Episcopal Church allows its priests to marry and date. The Catholic Church requires them to be celibate.

Cutie thanked supporters and asked the media to respect his privacy. He said his decision did not come quickly.

"I have searched my soul and sought God's guidance for a long time," he said.

He said his struggle "should in no way tarnish the commitment of so many brother priests who are celibate and faithful to their promise."

That struggle was news to Archbishop John Favalora, who said he met with Cutie on May 5, after the photos were published, and that the priest didn't indicate he was wrestling with such thoughts. In a statement, he admonished the 40-year-old Cutie and Episcopal leaders in Miami.

"He has never told me that he was considering joining the Episcopal Church," Favalora said. "(The Episcopal Bishop) has never spoken to me about his position on this delicate matter or what actions he was contemplating. This truly is a serious setback for ecumenical relations and cooperation between us."

Added Favalora: "It's unsettling to the faith, that's why it's a scandal. But the church has been through scandals before — the church will survive."

Cutie headed the archdiocese's Radio Paz and Radio Peace broadcasts, heard throughout the Americas and in Spain, and earned the nickname "Father Oprah" for his relationship advice. Since the scandal broke, bloggers have commented on his "dreamy" blue eyes.

The Cuban-American priest was born in Puerto Rico and previously hosted shows on Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language network in the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere. He is also a syndicated Spanish-language columnist and author of the book "Real Life, Real Love: 7 Paths to a Strong, Lasting Relationship."

Earlier this month, Cutie told CBS he has been romantically involved with the woman in the photos for about two years after being friends for much longer.

"I believe that I've fallen in love and I believe that I've struggled with that, between my love for God, and my love for the church and my love for service," Cutie said. Cutie maintains that he supports the Catholic Church's stand that priests should be celibate and does not want to become the "anti-celibacy priest."

After the scandal, more than 100 people gathered outside Cutie's former parish in Miami Beach, waving posters and chanting their forgiveness of the popular cleric. On Thursday, news of Cutie's religious switch inundated Spanish-language talk radio.

Cutie, during his brief statement to the media on Thursday, said he was "humbled" by the tsunami of support. His girlfriend — dressed in a gray suit and pink lipstick — said nothing. When Cutie was finished speaking, a TV reporter shouted in Spanish, "Father Alberto, we are live," and Cutie, and the woman, smiled and walked away from the pulpit.