A PARISH priest has been suspended from his Scottish post for writing a controversial memoir that claimed there is a culture of homosexual bullying in the Catholic Church.
Parishioners at St John Ogilvie's Church in High Blantyre, Lanarkshire, reacted with fury and disbelief when they were told just before Mass last night that Father Matthew Despard had been removed from his ministry.
They were greeted by a weeping Father Despard outside the church shortly before the 4.30pm Mass began, and were ushered inside to hear a statement from Bishop Joseph Toal, Acting Bishop of the Diocese of Motherwell.
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Angry scenes broke out among the congregation when Bishop Toal informed them "a penal judicial process" had been instituted against Father Despard as a result of the publication of his book Crisis In The Priesthood, with parishioners demanding answers over the priest's suspension.
Father Despard, 48, embarked on a collision course with Church authorities when he published his book on Amazon in the wake of the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who admitted to gay relationships and sexual activity spanning decades.
However, it was later reported the priest would escape sanction after Joseph Devine, the previous Bishop of Motherwell, issued a notice stating that no action would be taken against him.
The controversy has now taken a fresh twist, with the priest in danger of being stripped of his ministry after action was taken against him under canon law.
There were chaotic scenes at the church, with some parishioners walking out in protest over the news before communion could be held while others were left 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 those sitting in 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. People were very upset. 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?"
"Some refused to take Communion from the Bishop and walked out. Father Matthew is very much respected in the parish and he's been here for about five years.
"People back him over his book. It did cause some controversy and the congregation was split over it, but the majority have remained faithful to him."
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 renamed 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."
Last night, the priest said he could not comment on what had happened at St John Ogilvie's, and referred calls to his lawyer.
Hugh Neilson, representing Despard, said: "Father Despard is dismayed at today's events that led to what can only be described as a mass walk-out by so many of his parishioners.
"He was humbled and deeply touched by the many supportive and affectionate comments including from those ... who stayed after the bishop's statement.
"He hopes that those in authority may yet reflect on today's dramatic events that were, in his view, so unnecessary.
"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."
Father William Nolan, of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in East Kilbride, has been appointed parish administrator until the case against Father Despard is concluded.
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."