Services at a Catholic chapel have been suspended after its priest was sacked following an extraordinary incident which saw him involved in a "physical argument" with a 77-year-old female parishioner.

Father Michael Brookes, 62, has been accused of assaulting the woman by grabbing and dragging her into a room during a row just before mass on Christmas Eve at the St Thomas More chapel in Harleston.

The local Roman Catholic diocese has confirmed that following an investigation the priest has been removed from his post while the Bishop of East Anglia has offered his "sadness and regret" to the woman.

Fr Michael's departure means masses in Harleston, as well as some in neighbouring Bungay - which he also covered - have been "temporarily paused" because the diocese does not have enough priests to cover them.



The incident on Christmas Eve followed a disagreement over whether a family should be allowed to attend the mass service in Harleston with their puppy.

The woman, who has been a parishioner for several years, was keen to allow them in, but Fr Michael disagreed and asked them to leave.

Beccles & Bungay Journal: The incident happened at the Catholic Chapel of St Thomas More in Harleston on Christmas EveThe incident happened at the Catholic Chapel of St Thomas More in Harleston on Christmas Eve (Image: Sonya Duncan)

The row between the pair took place shortly before the service was due to start, in a side room at the Jay's Green chapel.

Afterwards, Fr Michael cancelled the service and sent the worshippers home.



The woman, who has asked not to be named, told the EDP: "Fr Michael gripped me and shook me, having dragged me into a room which nobody could see into, while shouting in my face.

"It was all because I said he was wrong to rudely dismiss a family from the door as a small boy had a puppy with him.

"It was very scary.

"I tried to leave and he dragged me back into the room and continued shouting in my face.

"Finally I managed to escape the room before the Father then ordered those in attendance for the ceremony out of the chapel."

The woman, who is a widow, added: "What was most terrifying wasn't the physical manhandling, it was the way he screamed in my face, spitting as he shouted out of control."



The woman did not report the incident to police but notified the Diocese of East Anglia.

She said she gave church leaders an ultimatum to dismiss Fr Michael or she would contact police.

She claims she had previously raised concerns with the diocese about his behaviour.

"In the preceding weeks, there had been incidents where the man had also lost the plot at people, screaming at them - and it was becoming more and more frequent," she said.

Beccles & Bungay Journal: The incident happened at the Catholic Chapel of St Thomas MoreThe incident happened at the Catholic Chapel of St Thomas More (Image: Sonya Duncan)

"The clues for this eventual physical attack were there for a long time, as there had been many reported incidents.

"The bottom line is that he was abusive for the whole parish for over two years and it has resulted in the closure of the Harleston site which is so sad for so many people."

She said she had not received an apology from the priest, the bishop or the diocese.



A spokesman for the diocese said: "We can confirm that an incident took place on Christmas Eve 2023 at St Thomas More, Harleston, between parish priest Fr Michael Brookes and a parishioner.

"There was an argument and physical contact on a parishioner by Fr Brookes, which did not result in an injury.

"Fr Brookes immediately reported the incident to the diocesan safeguarding service. The parishioner did not regard it as a police matter.

"After a thorough investigation by the diocesan safeguarding service, Bishop Peter Collins took the decision that the priest should stand down from his priestly ministries and undergo independent clinical psychological assessment; he will be supported by diocesan authorities through the coming period.  

"In consequence, Fr Brookes is currently out of ministry and is no longer resident in the parish."



Since the incident, Bishop Peter has said that he held a series of meetings and conversations with Fr Michael, from summer 2023 onwards, regarding his health and his role.

Beccles & Bungay Journal: Bishop of East Anglia, Bishop Peter CollinsBishop of East Anglia, Bishop Peter Collins (Image: Sonya Duncan)

In a statement, the Bishop said the priest had been "experiencing the effects of significant stress over recent months, not least as a result of his concern regarding the health of his elderly mother" as well as ongoing discussions regarding the reorganisation of parishes.

The bishop added: “This is a very sad and upsetting situation for everyone and the safety and well-being of all involved are our primary concern.

"I wish to express my sadness and regret to the victim for what she experienced. We offer her the assurance of our prayers and support.

"Please be assured that I will continue to pray for everyone involved and the parishes of Bungay and Beccles.”



Fr Michael was appointed to the parish of Bungay with Harleston in 2021.

In an article on the parish website, he describes how he previously worked as a psychiatric nurse when he was younger.

He describes how his faith grew after he endured challenges in his personal life.

Beccles & Bungay Journal: There had been a series of complaints against Father Michael spanning two years before he physically assaulted a 77-year-old widow on Christmas EveThere had been a series of complaints against Father Michael spanning two years before he physically assaulted a 77-year-old widow on Christmas Eve (Image: Submitted)

He wrote: "Things in my life fell apart – a relationship, work, where I was living.

"Everything was negative, loss. Faith had become important again in my life, and I wanted to take my faith more seriously."

In the 1990s, inspired by Mother Theresa, he travelled to India and, on his return, fell seriously ill.

This deepened his faith further and he converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism.

He later joined the Order of the Carmelites at a priory in Kent for about four years.

After he left, he lived with the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham, while working in the NHS.

He then settled in Dereham and worked with Norfolk social services, before joining the priesthood in 2019.

After a brief stay in Bury St Edmunds, he joined the Bungay and Harleston parish.

He lived at the presbytery in Bungay but was asked to leave following the Christmas Eve incident.