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Priest who went public on sexual bullying at Bearsden seminary wins support

A PRIEST who has spoken out about a culture of sexual bullying in the Catholic Church in Scotland says he has been inundated with support since he went public with his experience.

Father Matthew Despard, 48, said he spoke out in an attempt to tackle the problems of abuse and bullying, which he claims are "rife" in the Church.

He said that "phones have been off the hook with support" after he spoke of inappropriate behaviour at Chesters College in Bearsden – later named Scotus College – during the 1980s and his attempts to raise complaints with the authorities.

One congregation member, Stephen McNaughton, posted on Twitter last night: "Much respect for the bravery & honesty of our parish priest, speaking out about the Church's issues."

However Fr Despart, the parish priest of St John Ogilvie church in High Blantyre, Lanarkshire, last night said he did not want his story to overshadow the beginning of one of the most important times of the Catholic calendar, Holy Week.

He said: "I'm not important at the moment – Holy Week is more important for the faith."

Fr Despard has self-published a book titled Priesthood in Crisis to expose what he calls a culture of sexual misconduct taking place in junior seminaries where priests are trained.

Written three years ago, he said he decided to publish the book in the wake of the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who last month quit as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and admitted sexual misconduct during his time as a cleric.

A number of details about Cardinal O'Brien's conduct, including a claim that he groped a priest in Rome on the night he received his Red Mitre from the Pope, have since emerged.

Fr Despard said: "It's not just about Cardinal O'Brien. If there's problems in the priesthood, like in any organisation, if you don't look at them they will come back again in five or 10 years. If you deal with the problem, then you can stop it."

In the book, the serving priest said: "My concern is that if we don't face up to what is happening in reality, the Church will suffer enormous damage.

"The accusations I have been making may appear intolerable to some, and truly I have trouble making them.

"But so much of the problematic state of the priesthood stems from the junior seminaries, where training took place cut off from the world, that were laws unto themselves, where abuse became so rife many had to be closed.

"The Catholic Church here in Scotland, and I am ashamed to admit this, has justified itself to Catholic papers by telling lie after lie, denying charges that are true, and claiming they have been defamed when the facts reported in the press are quite simply true."

Fr Despard says in the book he was the victim of inappropriate approaches during his time as a seminarian at Chesters. 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 just playing with me or perhaps testing me. As it was, the only response I could make was that I was not of the inclination that would engage in that kind of behaviour."

Fr Despard maintains the book was written to expose activities that are "contrary to the rule of celibacy".

After his rebuffs, the priest claims he became a victim of verbal abuse as well as bullying, which he was to encounter again at various points throughout his religious career.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: 'Priests and seminarians are called to a life of celibacy. Therefore any sexual advances are inappropriate and wrong.

"Father Despard has drawn attention to a real issue in priestly formation, which the Church has taken steps to address over the last 20 years by promoting a mature and integrated celibate sexuality among candidates for ministry."

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