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Congregation unite in protest at suspension of parish priest

The furious congregation of a church has walked out in protest after the suspension of their parish priest.

FAITH: Father Matthew Despard has the backing of his parishioners.
FAITH: Father Matthew Despard has the backing of his parishioners.

Only a handful of parishioners remained yesterday to take mass at St John Ogilvie's Church in High Blantyre with Archdiocese of Motherwell acting Bishop Joseph Toal after Father Matthew Despard was removed from his ministry the night before.

Before they went into church, people signed a petition calling for the reinstatement of Father Despard, suspended for writing a controversial memoir that claimed there is a culture of homosexual bullying in the Catholic Church.

When Bishop Toal, accompanied by Father William Nolan, tried to take mass, Geraldine Penches said she wanted to make a statement, and received a roar of applause from the congregation in a packed church.

Her short statement referred to Father Despard as "a very honest man" and said: "This is more scandal to rock the Catholic Church which has to be hushed up.

"Because Father tells the truth he is removed from his priestly duties. We the people are the church, not the bishops. When people said on Saturday night they wouldn't return, the Bishop said we'll close the church. I don't think Pope Francis would be very pleased with that."

After her remarks, the Bishop tried to continue with mass. The atmosphere was charged and some women were in tears. Most of the congregation walked out, with many queuing to sign the petition.

"I felt so strongly about this and what they're doing to Father Despard that I had to make a statement in the church," Ms Penches said. I won't be back for mass if Father Despard isn't here. The Bishop should be removed from the church, not Father Despard. I want to send an email to the highest office in the church. The church has caused more hurt than Father Despard's book ever did."

Angry scenes broke out among the congregation on Saturday when Bishop Toal informed them "a penal judicial process" had been instituted against Father Despard as a result of his book Crisis in the Priesthood.

In April Jospeh Devine, the previous Bishop of Motherwell, said no action would be taken against Father Despard. The move by Bishop Jospeh Toal is being taken under canon law.

A member of the church for 13 years, Josephine Greenhorn said she had spoken to the Bishop before the service yesterday and implored him to rethink. "I also asked why, if Bishop Devine said there would be no sanctions against Matthew Despard, had he decided to act now?

"He said it was his decision. I said, are you saying Bishop Devine was wrong? And he said no but I'm making the decision now and this has to happen."

She said the congregation had no option but to walk out and thought it was wrong for the Bishop to try to silence them by attempting to continue with the mass.

"I found that shocking, he was taking that disorder into the mass. What happened on Saturday was an affront to the mass and to the eucharist. The publicity surrounding this is going to hurt us all over again. Have an investigation, but don't destroy a man."

She urged the Bishop to agree to meet a group from the parish to discuss the deadlock. Parishioner Patrick Stirling said: "This is not about what Father Despard is or is not guilty of - it's the way the church went about it."

Hugh Neilson, a lawyer representing Father Despard, said people are shocked and angered at the treatment of Father Despard.

"He is aware the world church is listening to the people under the guidance of Pope Francis and his hope is the hierarchy of the church in Scotland will start listening to the people and engaging with him, even if he has things to say some in the church don't want to hear," he said. "He is praying for the people of his congregation and others affected. He will be seeking to have Bishop Toal reconsider this unnecessary decision."

Father Nolan of Our Lady of Lourdes in East Kilbride has been appointed parish administrator at St John Ogilvie's.

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 Fr Matthew Despard from Parish Ministry, until the judicial process has run its course. This action does not prejudge the case in any way."

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