Petition update

Copy of letter sent to Archbishop Antonio Mennini

Helen Ann Hawkins
Blantyre, SCT, United Kingdom

Sep 8, 2014 — Your Excellency

The parish of St John Ogilvie, of Motherwell Diocese, is currently enduring the suspension of its parish priest Father Matthew Despard and ongoing delays in the hearing of the case against him by the Inter Diocesan Tribunal. The latest delays have arisen because Motherwell Diocese has chosen to take the matter into a Civil Court which has led to the Scottish media making the case, once again, a feature in our daily news. The Church in Scotland has been subjected to ridicule and criticism while we, the laity, have had to look on and suffer pain and embarrassment. We cannot see Christ in any of the actions of the Diocese of Motherwell.

Some of us wrote to Archbishop Phillip Tartaglia, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, imploring him to act personally. He claims, however, that the Bishops’ Conference has no authority over the Diocese of Motherwell yet Bishop Toal, the person who has led the process against Father Matthew Despard, is Vice-President of the same Bishops’ Conference which Archbishop Tartaglia presides over. Where can the laity turn in such circumstances?

You visited Motherwell Diocese yourself when Bishop Toal’s appointment as the new Bishop of Motherwell was made official. It is hard to imagine that you could have been comfortable celebrating this event if you were in fact aware the entire Diocese was also reeling from other events that shame us all.

It is now almost ten months since Bishop Joseph Toal arrived in the parish to announce Father Matthew’s removal. The manner in which the Diocese went about this matter caused great pain to many parishioners. The wording of the statement issued by Bishop Toal made it clear that the Diocese intended to punish Father Matthew Despard starting with his removal from the parish house which had been his home for more than five years. No mention was made, in Bishop Toal’s statement, of the allegations made by Father Despard about his own experiences as a priest, many of which were horrifying, or whether a full investigation was to be carried out by the Diocese to verify the allegations. Why was any reference to these omitted? Bishop Toal’s statement is still available to read and the implications of it are clear. The process underway appeared to be solely designed to punish Father Despard. Bishop Toal justified removing Father Despard by claiming he would, by remaining in the house, be in a position to intimidate or threaten witnesses against him. This statement was, then, anything but reassuring to those who heard it and sent a clear message that the Bishop himself was actually attempting to influence and prejudice the outcome of the process underway by issuing such a statement in the first place.

Since the process began Bishop Toal has issued further public statements concerning Father Despard when the case, surely, is sub judice? Individuals referred to as “senior figures within Motherwell Diocese” also provided quotes to newspapers about the case.

Bishop Toal is doing the same thing again while a Civil Court Case, brought by Motherwell Diocese to bring about the eviction of Father Despard from the parish house, proceeds. Again, that case is sub judice and still ongoing yet another statement was issued in some Motherwell Parishes last weekend concerning the Court Case. Why to only some parishes? And is Bishop Toal above the law of the land?

A petition was organised here by parishioners and many pleas were made to the Bishop to reconsider and instead to use dialogue and common sense in this matter. He was urged to consider what Christ would do in such a situation rather than condone all out war within his Diocese with priests using their churches to attack another priest and another parish. The petition drew support from beyond the parish of St John Ogilvie and beyond the Diocese too. It also found support from many within the local community who do not share our faith but who know Father Despard well and respect him.

We understand the need for an investigation into many issues. What we do not accept is that the treatment of Father Despard by Bishop Toal and the outright hostility directed towards him was necessary or appropriate.

We also believe that Bishop Toal has treated our parish with contempt by behaving in such an un-Christian manner towards all of us and by the manner in which he has dealt with the case of Father Despard. Even if Bishop Toal would have taken the time to ask the parishioners of St John Ogilvie’s he might have been made aware of the support for Father Despard and taken a more low key approach to the situation.

The parish house has two apartments and there should have been no problem with Father Despard remaining here while his case proceeded. Bishop Toal created that situation. Bishop Toal has made it clear it was his wish that Father Despard was removed. He has issued further statements, publicly, condemning Father Despard and even appealed to the laity to implore Father Despard to obey him. Again, this was done while the case was ongoing and surely the sub-judice status of the case should have meant Bishop Toal was not legally entitled to attempt to prejudice the outcome by publicly attacking Father Despard in such a manner?

The vast majority of parishioners would, once, not have remotely considered challenging a Bishop. That so many of us found ourselves so appalled by Bishop Toal’s behaviour that we could not obey him should demonstrate to you the support for Father Despard and the serious damage Bishop Toal has done. Father Despard has been instructed to remain silent on these matters yet Bishop Toal utters public attacks on the same man when he sees fit. How is that reasonable or right? And surely such behaviour brings our Church into disrepute and invites challenge?

The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, via its President, Phillip Tartaglia, is refusing to intervene in what is now a truly unholy mess within our Diocese. As Papal Nuncio is it not, then, your duty to intervene yourself and show some compassion for the laity who continue to suffer the consequences as our parish and Diocese are torn apart? We would ask you to remind the hierarchy within Motherwell Diocese that as followers of Christ they should seriously consider practising His teachings instead of displaying arrogance and contempt for the laity and Canon Law as they manipulate the latter to suit their own agenda?

As Papal Nuncio we appeal to you to intervene to make sure fairness, balance and justice enter proceedings as a matter of urgency. We are entitled to ask for all of these things yet, so far, those in authority within the Motherwell Diocese have failed to behave in a fair, balanced or just manner. They have ignored us. Where is their Christianity? They have let themselves down, they have let us down but they have also, ultimately, done all of this without once considering the media and how outsiders perceive the Catholic faith or whether the Lord they claim to follow would approve of their un-Christian and, at times, plain reckless conduct in this matter.

Please intervene in this matter.

God bless you

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