MIAMI (AP) -- A popular priest known as "Father Oprah" said it wasn't an easy decision to sever ties with the Roman Catholic Church amid a scandal over tabloid photos of him kissing and hugging the woman he loves.

The Rev. Alberto Cutie (pronounced koo-tee-'AY), who was removed from his Miami Beach parish after the beach photos surfaced, stood at the pulpit of Trinity Cathedral Thursday, his girlfriend right behind him, to face the media about his choice to join the Episcopal Church, which allows its priests to marry.

He said his decision to switch was made over time, not since the uproar over the photos of him smooching his girlfriend, which appeared in a Spanish-language magazine earlier the month. The images rocked South Florida's Spanish-speaking community, where he was widely known for his leading-man good looks and as the host of a TV show on relationships.

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

He did not talk about his relationship with the woman, who has been identified in local media as 35-year-old 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 scheduled to deliver a sermon Sunday at his new church, but must complete other requirements before serving as an Episcopal priest.

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."