Petition backing Motherwell priest goes to bishop’s office

Helen Ann Hawkins, left, and Ray Barrett hand over the petition.
Helen Ann Hawkins, left, and Ray Barrett hand over the petition.

A petition backing a priest who has been suspended from his duties was handed to the office of the Bishop of Motherwell today.

Supporters of Fr Matthew Despard, who is from Motherwell, have gathered around 1,300 signatures and are demanding he be allowed back into the pulpit.

Fr Despard angered fellow priests and the church authorities last year when he published a book alleging a culture of sexual misconduct within the priesthood.

The book prompted threats of legal action from priests who claimed they had been defamed.

In November Bishop Joseph Toal, acting Bishop of Motherwell Diocese, suspended Fr Despard from his post as parish priest at St John Ogilvie in Blantyre pending an investigation.

Organiser Helen Ann Hawkins handed the petition into Motherwell’s Diocesan Centre.

In a letter she told Bishop Toal: “Through the centuries, in all walks of life, people have had the courage to speak out against injustice and bullying.

“Even though it means they are treated as troublemakers and are made to feel isolated and unwanted, they still fight for what they feel is right.”

Bishop Joseph Toal has criticised Fr Despard for defying his authority and urged the priest’s supporters to persuade him to toe the line.

Bishop Toal, who is Bishop of Oban, was appointed apostolic administrator - or acting bishop - of Motherwell Diocese last May following the retiral of Bishop Joseph Devine.

The inquiry into the priest’s book is being dealt with by the Roman Catholic Church’s Scottish Inter-Diocesan Tribunal.

On Sunday a letter from Bishop Toal went out to Motherwell Diocese parishes.

Bishop Toal wrote: “I have tried to carry out the responsibilities given to me and continue to ask Fr Despard to do what I have requested. I would ask those who continue to support him to prevail upon him to obey my instructions, in particular to co-operate fully in assisting Fr Nolan as the administrator of St John Ogilvie’s.”

More on this story in this week’s Motherwell Times, out on Wednesday.