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1300-strong petition fights for suspended priest

CAMPAIGNERS have handed over a 1300-name petition to the acting Bishop of Motherwell calling for the return of their suspended parish priest.

Father Matthew Despard has been suspended since November last year, when Bishop Joseph Toal, Acting Bishop of Motherwell, removed him after he published a book alleging a culture of homosexual bullying within the Catholic Church.

The book, Priesthood In Crisis, has since been withdrawn by Amazon and has been the subject of threats of legal action by fellow priests who claim to have been defamed by it.

Parishioners from St John Ogilvie's RC church in High Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, are divided over whether Father 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.

She handed it into the Diocese of Motherwell offices yesterday morning, with another copy submitted to the headquarters of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, which is headed by Bishop Toal.

Ms Hawkins, 40, lives in Blantyre but attends another parish although extended family member attend St John Ogilvie.

She said: "There is a hierarchy in the church but even in the police if you were disciplined you would have representation. Father Despard hasn't.

"Father Despard felt that there was something wrong in the Catholic Church, his workplace, and he has done something about it. In other places of work whistleblowers are protected.

"This is about the injustices for me. I haven't even read his book."

But there are other complaints that Father Despard's book has "decimated" the parish and that he has driven many members of the congregation away.

It is also claimed his main support is coming from a group of orthodox lay Catholics vehemently opposed to the faintest suggestion of homosexuality within the church.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said: "People are entitled to express their opinion but as the Tribunal process is currently underway, it must be allowed to conclude and should be respected by all involved."

The petition contains supportive messages from across Scotland and the rest of the UK, as well as expats in countries including Australia.

One couple from Inverness wrote: "Having read his book we can identify some of the characters and we know he is telling the truth! He is a priest. We believe that the truth will be out in the end."

One Canadian even called for a boycott of church attendance.

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