SCOTLAND'S longest-serving Catholic bishop has backed down from moves to sanction a serving priest over claims the Church has covered up a culture of sexual bullying.

Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell, issued a notice this week stating no action would be taken against Father Matthew Despard, who has alleged sexual misconduct has been rife for decades in junior seminaries where teenagers train for the priesthood.

Father Despard, parish priest of St John Ogilvie's in High Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, has written a book on the allegations. It names serving priests and claims senior figures in the Church refused to confront complaints of abuse and bullying.

Although written in 2010, Father Despard self-published Priesthood In Crisis on Amazon's Kindle store last month in the wake of the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien and his admission of gay relationships and sexual activity spanning decades.

It has generated a storm within the Church, with Bishop Devine instigating moves which could have led to the removal of Father Despard from his parish or led, theoretically, to his removal from the priesthood.

However, amid concerns any action could simply add fuel to the controversial claims of Father Despard and embroil senior figures within the Church, Bishop Devine has abandoned any punitive action.

One senior source said simply: "Devine blinked."

The Herald understands that, following the publication of Priesthood In Crisis, Bishop Devine called an emergency meeting of his diocesan advisers on the Sunday after Easter.

Their advice was to summon Father Despard to a further private meeting, which led to a confidentiality agreement with the priest.

Moves were also instigated to convene a tribunal of inquiry, the formal process by which a bishop commences action against a member of the clergy.

But this week Bishop Devine issued an "ad clerum", a notice to priests, stating no inquiry would take place. The Herald understands that despite threats to do so, no member of the Catholic clergy has instigated legal action against Father Despard.

A Church source said: "Matthew Despard had all the aces. His take on it has been 'let them come for me'.

"No-one will sue him because they won't want a can of worms opened. Secondly, what will they sue him for? They've silenced him for now, which they might think is sanction enough. But, the book is still out there.

"They're terrified this will blow-up further. There are people mentioned in Despard's book Joe Devine will not want to have dragged into any inquiry.

"There's also suggestions this will be dealt with by the Papal Nuncio in London, but only a route one goes down when all other avenues are exhausted."

In his book Father Despard, 48, 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, Father Despard said he was unable to comment.

A spokesman for the diocese said a decision had been taken to "go down a different route which would ensure the rights of all involved".