Hot Under the Collar

updated 06/01/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2009 01:00AM

Father Alberto Cutié never shied away from discussing life's more intimate details from the pulpit. "He said that sex was an important part of marriage and that it was necessary to communicate in the bedroom," says one of his parishioners at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Miami Beach. Cutié's frankness not only endeared him to his flock, it landed him a Spanish-language talk show and even led to a bestseller about relationships, Real Life, Real Love.

But now "real love" is threatening to undermine the spiritual career of "Father Oprah" as he is known. On May 5 a tabloid published pictures of a shirtless Cutié canoodling—despite his vow of celibacy—on a North Miami beach with Ruhama Canellis, a 35-year-old divorcée. After the church relieved Cutié, 40, of his duties, he appeared on the CBS Early Show to explain the photos. "This is someone that I love," said Cutié (pronounced KOO-tee-ay). "This is the only person that I've had sexual contact with."

Although Cutié said there was an "attraction" from the moment they met in church in 1999, he was careful to never be alone with her. Then two years ago, Cutié says, the couple's friendship turned romantic. While he regrets hurting or disappointing those in the church, he makes no excuses. "I never stopped being a man when I put on my cassock," he told one interviewer. "Under the cassock are pants. I am part of the human condition."

The church has given Cutié an ultimatum: Break up with Canellis or leave the priesthood. In an e-mail, he tells PEOPLE that he's taking some "time of prayer and reflection" to make his decision. "He loves this woman and he loves God," says a friend. "It's a very difficult choice."

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