Comment: Church deserves praise, not approbation

The suspension of a priest is the correct course of action to follow as inquiry gets under way, writes Michael Kelly

Fr Matthew Despard wrote a book entitled Priesthood in Crisis, which he self-published on Amazon in April this year. Picture: TSPL
Fr Matthew Despard wrote a book entitled Priesthood in Crisis, which he self-published on Amazon in April this year. Picture: TSPL

CONFUSION and misunderstanding, rather than righteous anger, are at the root of protests by his parishioners at the suspension of Fr Matthew Despard while a penal judicial process is undertaken into the way he made his allegations over homosexual bullying in the Catholic Church. Although he wrote his book, Priesthood in Crisis, in 2010 he did not self-publish it on Amazon until April this year. The memoir reflects his own experiences of being solicited by gay priests and the anger he genuinely felt at these abuses continuing in the Church.

However, a number of individuals named, including laity as well as clergy, took exception to the ways in which they had been portrayed and petitioned for the book to be removed from publication. It was, suggesting that at least some of the complainants had advanced compelling cases in law.

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Clearly, such allegations as 
Fr Despard made deserve thorough and detailed examination by the Church and, if upheld, for action to be taken. An investigation is also necessary to satisfy those who feel wronged by the book. That process is just beginning. But first the Church wants to examine the way in which Fr Despard brought his claims to the attention of the public. It is suggested that he should have used the Church’s own procedures to have the matters investigated, as did the four priests who anonymously made complaints to the Holy See about Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

Possibly better versed in the legal process and procedures, they took their allegations directly to Rome and, as a result, action was taken against the former Archbishop of Edinburgh. The seismic factor that brought their complaints to light, rather than allowing the process to be completed in private, was that Benedict XVI announced his abdication, raising the possibility that O’Brien would be voting for the new Pope. The complainants, determined to stop that, allowed their private allegations to be made public. They, in fact, achieved all of their objectives in completely removing O’Brien from all his priestly duties.

Following that example, it does seem that Fr Despard would have been better advised to pursue his concerns for the future of the priesthood in Scotland by a different route. As in all organisations, protocols exist, which he could have followed. The process to establish whether his actions were consistent with his duties as a priest has now begun. A formidable part of his defence will no doubt be that, given the history of cover-ups elsewhere, he had little faith that his allegations would be properly investigated unless they were publicised. While this and other issues are being examined, the new Bishop of Motherwell has suspended his priest.

That is not how many of his parishioners or much of the media see it. Instead, it is being interpreted as an attempt to suppress his views or to discredit him as an individual. Nothing could be further from the truth, as is made clear by the statement the bishop made at the disrupted service on Friday in High Blantyre, which emphasised that the suspension did not prejudice the case in any way.

Maybe the congregation did not fully grasp the implications of the statement, which was couched in legal language. Maybe many are unaware that this type of suspension is common across society when an individual makes serious allegations about his organisation or individuals within it. This is not a sanction or a penalty. Fr Despard is still a priest within his diocese, which will continue to support him. There is no suggestion that he be permanently banned from the priesthood. The one error that the diocese did make was in not enforcing this suspension six months ago when the book was first published. One may blame the dislocation caused by a change in bishop for the delay.

However, the assurances from the Church as to the objectivity of its approach will only convince the suspicious if the Church follows this initial inquiry with a full investigation into the substance of Fr Despard’s allegations. It will take time to establish the facts, but time is not something that the parishioners of St John Oglivie’s want to extend.

Already their hot-headed reaction to a justifiable decision has led to some very silly outbursts such as, “we the people are the Church, not the bishops”, which John Knox would have enjoyed but which has been resisted by the Church both before and since. But, as Pope Francis attempts to include the laity in consultation, this is the kind of nonsense we will have to tolerate until the Pope’s intentions are fully understood.

The survey of lay opinion that has just been announced will be a succinct synopsis. Returns have to be made to the Vatican by the end of next month, so views through parish councils, meetings and committee will have to be quickly gathered. Liberal Catholics might be disappointed in what results. They might well be hoping that if the view of the laity across Europe is, say, in favour of contraception, then Rome will fall in line. That is not what will happen. Doctrine is not determined by a vote.

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If a country or a large diocese reports that 75 per cent of its Catholics approve of same-sex marriage, the result will not be a change in teaching. Rather, a stinking letter of rebuke to the responsible bishops will be fired off reprimanding them for allowing their flocks to fall into sin. That will be followed by an invasion of shock troops of Francis’s fellow Jesuits to root out the heresy.

The revealed word of God is never going to be the subject of a referendum. For the much less important matters of Church discipline and law with which we are concerned here, there is undoubtedly room for lay voices to be heard as the Pope strives to make the Church both more Christ-like and more relevant. Married priests and even woman priests could be on the agenda. The Church has promised to change. It has got a lot of things wrong recently. But when its gets something right – as it has done so far with Fr Despard’s case – then its members should be defending it, not attacking it.