A PRIEST who wrote a controversial book claiming there was a culture of homosexual bullying within the Catholic Church in Scotland has been suspended.
Parishioners at St John Ogilvie’s Church in High Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, reportedly reacted angrily and walked out after being told shortly before mass that their parish priest Father Matthew Despard had been removed from the ministry.
Father Despard alleged in his self-published memoir Crisis In The Priesthood that sexual misconduct had been rife for decades in seminaries where teenagers train for the priesthood.
Parishioners had been greeted by a weeping Father Despard outside the church as they arrived for the 4:30pm mass on Saturday. Bishop Joseph Toal, Acting Bishop of the Diocese of Motherwell, read out a statement informing them “a penal judicial process” had been instituted against Father Despard.
Father Despard, 48, became embroiled in a dispute with Church authorities after publishing his book on Amazon in March, in the wake of the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who admitted to gay relationships and sexual activity.
However, it was later reported the priest would not face sanctions after Joseph Devine, the previous Bishop of Motherwell, issued a notice stating no action would be taken against him.
But the controversy has taken a new turn, with Father Despard at risk of being stripped of his ministry after action was taken against him under canon law.
There were chaotic scenes at the church, with parishioners walking out in protest over the news while others were in tears.
One woman who was there said about 150 people attended the service and their reaction to Father Despard’s suspension was “as close to a riot as you could get” inside a place of worship.
She said Bishop Toal had to raise his voice and read the statement a second time as his first effort was drowned out by shouts from the pews.
The Bishop later took mass. The eyewitness, who asked not to be named, said: “I have never seen anything like it in a church. There were children in tears. People were shouting at Bishop Toal that there was a crisis in the Church and asking where’s God in all this?”
Father Despard’s memoir names serving priests and claims senior figures in the Church refused to confront complaints of abuse and bullying.
He claims he was the victim of inappropriate approaches as a seminarian and alleges trainee priests who rebuffed the advances of others were bullied. Of his time as a student at Chesters College [later Scotus College] in Bearsden in the late 1980s, he wrote: “One or two students tried to kiss me when I was there. I did not know what to make of that, whether they were perhaps testing me.”
His memoir was ranked the 125th most popular out of 1.9 million e-books on Amazon before it was withdrawn for breaching “content guidelines”.
Father Despard said he could not comment on events at St John Ogilvie’s, and referred calls to his lawyer. Hugh Neilson, who is representing the priest, said Father Despard had been “humbled and deeply touched” by his parishioners’ support.
“It is a pity that repeated requests for a meeting [over two months] between Bishop Toal and Father Despard’s representatives went completely unheeded. The last thing Father Despard wanted was for his disagreements with the Church to attract further publicity or to cause anybody, particularly his parishioners, unnecessary anxiety.”
A spokesman for Bishop Toal said: “Since there is a canonical case in progress at the present time, Bishop Toal felt it was appropriate to remove Father Matthew Despard from Parish Ministry, until the judicial process has run its course. This action does not prejudge the case in any way.”