GRESFORD supporters of sacked Catholic priest Father Guy Hartcher have defied Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone and organised a "celebration of thanksgiving" Mass for the priest at the parish in October.
The mass, at which Father Hartcher is expected to play a formal role despite his sacking, is in part because of his leadership after the tragic suicide of Gresford man Michael Richardson, and the killing of his wife, Roxanne, and children Luke and Grace in 2004.
"Guy stood tall and gave direction to a community that was shattered, and I mean totally shattered," Gresford Congregationalist Reverend Michael McClure said yesterday.
"The place stopped, and he was the only person to start the healing process again."
Parish council members organised the Mass after the NSW Ombudsman's office endorsed the priest's sacking following an investigation of alleged sexual abuse by Father Hartcher against three teenage boys in the 1970s.
In a letter last week to one of the victims, Ombudsman Bruce Barbour said he was "satisfied with the diocese's handling of this matter, their findings and the action taken".
But the sacking has left an extremely divided community that believes the matter should have ended when the priest was not convicted of sexual abuse charges in the 1990s.
"There's two different factions in town," said a Gresford resident who refused to be identified because "I don't want to get into any more arguments with people about it".
"I could give you the name of a person who thinks he's a saint and a person who lives next door who thinks just the opposite, but I won't because I don't want any trouble."
Reverend McClure said he contacted the parish after he heard several weeks ago that a thanksgiving Mass and barbecue were planned.
He was prepared to play a formal role at the Mass for a priest he supported, despite the diocese and the Ombudsman's actions.
"There are many people incensed at what has happened to Guy," Reverend McClure said.
"He stood out among his peers as a man who was sincere in his faith and proclaiming that faith to his flock, and as such there is an overwhelming majority in the community, both within and outside the parish, who support him because of the man that he was.
"I obviously fall into that category."
Father Hartcher did not return The Herald's calls.
A spokesman for Father Hartcher's order, the Vincentians, was not available to speak about the priest's future or his registration on the Commission for Children and Young Persons database.
A spokesman for the Catholic Church's national committee for child protection will speak on the matter today.
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