CAMPAIGNERS are today planning to hand over a 1300-name petition to the acting Bishop of Motherwell calling for the return of their suspended parish priest.

Parishioners from St John Ogilvie's RC church in High Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, are divided over whether Father Matthew Despard should be allowed to return to his job.

Local resident Helen Ann Hawkins started a petition to remove the suspension, and more than 1300 signatures have been added in support of his return.

Loading article content

Father Despard has been suspended since November last year, when Bishop Joseph Toal, Acting Bishop of Motherwell, removed his after he had claimed in a blog there was a culture of homosexual bullying within the Catholic Church.

Ms Hawkins hopes to submit the signatures to Bishop Toal, as well as ­handing in the documents to the diocese in the hope his suspension will be lifted.

She was moved to become involved despite the fact she is not a church-goer.

Ms Hawkins, who has lived in Blantyre all her life, said Father Despard was an important part of the community and described the suspension as an injustice.

She added: "I feel that it is a bullying tactic. He was told before the vigil mass that he was suspended and that he couldn't do any other duties and had to leave.

"He was standing outside the car park, visibly upset; a lot of his parishioners were visibly upset as well.

"Because he has opened up and spoken about the things that have happened in the past, he is being punished."

The suspension has also impacted on other church activities.

The priest was not present on a community trip to Fort William, attended by about 100 people, organised prior to the suspension.

It is understood Father Despard's parents were unable to take part in the trip without their son as they relied on him for help with his father's wheelchair.