Between Sunday morning Masses, Hugo Fernandez stood in the doorway of St. Francis de Sales Church—a place he calls “a little oasis” in the heart of the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah known as South Beach.
Casting an eye toward Ocean Drive and the Miami Beach bars and night clubs that had only just closed, Fernandez, a church usher, said: “This is a sin city. Everybody comes here in search of pleasure.”
Including a few of the priests.
In the span of four months, this tiny church has become perhaps the most scandalous parish in the country.
First, in May, a furor erupted over Father Alberto Cutie, a rising star in the Catholic Church who won the nickname “Father Oprah” because of his popular Spanish-language talk show. Cutie was crossing over to English-speaking audiences with appearances on network shows like the reality series “Momma’s Boys,” in which he offered dating advice to young men. Then, a tabloid magazine published pictures of Father Cutie canoodling with a young woman on the beach, his hand lost down the bottom of her bathing suit. Their long-term, secret affair instantly became an international sensation.
“He was telling me that I had evil spirits with me and that I needed his help big time,” Hernandez said of Father Dueppen, who suggested the two of them go to a swinger’s club. “He said ‘The only way the spirits are going to leave you is if you get involved with women.’”
Ultimately, so he could marry the woman he loved and still keep his collar, Father Cutie made a leap of faith, joining an Episcopal Church that was all too eager to steal a blue-chip clergyman with huge fundraising potential from the Catholics.
But Father Cutie’s activities were a Shakespearean love sonnet compared to the sordid tale now emerging about Father David Dueppen—who led the congregation at St. Francis de Sales immediately prior to Father Cutie.
Three weeks ago, a woman came forward to announce that she had given birth to Father Dueppen’s baby—Marilyn Epiphany Hernandez. Turns out the mother was a stripper who claimed she began her affair with Father Dueppen six years ago while she was working at a club called Porky’s.
“I was on stage and he walked in,” said Beatrice Hernandez, 43. “I really liked him. I thought he was good looking.”
The Catholic Church has been buffeted nationally in recent years by stories of pedophiles in their midst; the Cutie and Dueppen scandals, involving consenting female adults, represent unwanted publicity of a different sort. John Favalora, archbishop of Miami, condemned Father Cutie’s actions, saying they “have caused a grave scandal within the Catholic Church.” Church officials have remained silent thus far on Father Dueppen, other than confirming that he is on leave.
At St. Francis de Sales, there were protests after the first scandal—some in support of Father Cutie, others decrying his abandonment of the church. But the news of a second wayward priest seems to have left the community in stunned silence. There have been no protests of note; the editorial pages have remained conspicuously silent. Some parishioners have argued that if the church wasn’t so puritanical in its views of how male priests should comport themselves with the opposite sex, Father Dueppen might not have been skulking off to strip joints. Overall, the faithful at St. Francis de Sales, see the fact that their last two pastors have both been embroiled in sex scandals as an unfortunate coincidence.
“It is something that will happen in contemporary Catholic churches across the country,” predicted Mariana Gomez, 30, as she headed home from Sunday Mass. “I don’t think it’s a South Beach thing. It’s a Catholic thing.”
Still, even the most jaded Catholics might be shocked by the details of Father Dueppen’s undoing, as alleged by Hernandez. (Father Dueppen says there have been “inaccuracies” in Hernandez’s version of events, but has declined to specify what those might be; neither he nor his attorney has denied a relationship or paternity).
Shortly after he met the dancer in 2003, the two began secretly living together, Hernandez says. Everything seemed fine. Father Dueppen paid for her divorce, he found a part-time job at St. Francis de Sales for Hernandez’s 19-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and he began counseling Hernandez in a brand of Catholicism she had missed when she attended Sunday school as a child.
“He was telling me that I had evil spirits with me and that I needed his help big time,” Hernandez told CBS4 News in Miami. “He said we're going to have to go to a place where they can take those evil spirits from you. I said, `What do you mean.’ And he said, ‘A swingers club.’ He said, `The only way the spirits are going to leave you is if you get involved with women.’”
After living together for two years, she grew annoyed at his demands for kinky sex, and hired an attorney, threatening to expose the affair. In 2006, the Archdiocese of Miami quietly settled the case for a reported sum of $100,000. A church spokeswoman wouldn’t confirm the amount, but acknowledged that a payment was made to Hernandez that year because of an “inappropriate relationship” with Father Dueppen.
After the case was settled, Father Dueppen received spiritual counseling, renewed his vow of celibacy and was moved 15 miles up the road to a new church. Father Cutie was then called in to take over the South Beach parish. But even as the new priest was settling in, Father Dueppen couldn’t quite get over the one sheep in his flock that got away.
According to Hernandez, Father Dueppen began searching Miami strip joints to find her, eventually tracking her down last year to a Dollar Store she’d purchased with her church windfall.
“He said he missed me, he loves me, he said, `You know what, I want to start fresh with you,’” Hernandez recalled. “He said, `I want to have kids with you.’”
They began their affair anew and on January 27, 2009, she gave birth to the priest’s daughter. She said she named the baby Marilyn after his mother. She produced a paternity test that appears to prove Father Dueppen is indeed the father. Dueppen’s attorney has not contested the results to date.
She would have kept quiet about the baby, but claims Father Dueppen assaulted her last month. She is asking a judge for a permanent restraining order against the priest, who, according to church officials, is on a leave of absence “for personal reasons.” In addition, the Archdiocese has barred him from dressing like a priest or performing any church duties.
Father Dueppen’s attorney said his client would address the allegations of domestic violence in court next month. He declined to comment on the request for a restraining order, or the actions of the archdiocese.
As for Father Cutie, he recently went on Oprah and said he has never been happier. “I couldn’t deny my feelings for this woman,” he told Oprah. “Nobody plans on falling in love.”
For the faithful of St. Francis de Sales—a small mission-style chapel built in the1940’s—the recent events have been an unwanted distraction.
“It had an effect on people initially,” said Oscar Thomas, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1961 and has been a member of the church for years. “But we’re exposed to so many worldly things on Miami Beach, so the people here are hardened to these sorts of scandals. This doesn’t reflect on the church itself. A lot of very nice people, a lot of older people come here. And the priests are great. All the priests here are lovable people.”
Perhaps too lovable?
“No,” he smiled. “We’re sorry these things happened. But we’ll overcome it.”
Added Fernandez, the church usher: “It’s possible they succumbed to temptation around them. The human mind is very difficult to analyze.”
The new pastor, Father Gabriel Vigues, assumed control of the church two months ago. Fernandez said when he met Father Vigues he had one message for him. “I told him, `I don’t want you to let me down,’” Fernandez said. “He laughed.”
Before the start of Mass, Father Vigues—an older priest absent his predecessors’ apparent sex appeal—came to the back of the church and politely explained he could not agree to an interview. “I just hope you are fair to us,” he said as congregants entered the church. “These are good people.”
Told that parishioners hope there are no skeletons in his closet and that he would not disappoint them as the last two pastors did, he said simply: “I will try.”
Jim DeFede, a longtime South Florida investigative reporter, works for CBS4 News in Miami.