CHARISMATIC, self-effacing and with a common touch rare among the clergy, Fr Neru Leuea must have seemed like manna from heaven to the local Catholic diocese.
After attending seminary in Wagga, the Samoan-born priest was ordained in late 2002, going on to serve in Griffith, Leeton and Narrandera.
He had an immediate and profound impact on parishioners.
He spoke their language, enjoying a beer and a round of golf with them in his spare time, and delivered sermons rich in humour and humanity.
His standing in the communities he served was never more apparent than in 2014 when the Riverina Catholic diocese decided to relocate him from Griffith to Narrandera.
In an extraordinary show of faith, more than 600 members of his parish held a candlelight vigil, imploring Bishop Gerard Hanna to reconsider.
Small children waved placards, parishioners chanted slogans, almost 3000 people joined a “Keep Father Neru” Facebook page and local politicians and business leaders publicly joined the chorus of outrage.
“We all question our faith at some point in our life and he always seems to find a way to bring people back to Jesus,” a church member told Griffith’s The Area News at the time.
The Catholic Church was unmoved, shifting Fr Neru to Narrandera, where he had a similar impact on his flock.
In a period when the Catholic church is fighting for relevance in an increasingly secular and cynical world, Fr Neru was a man for his time.
And so news he had been charged with raping a 10-year-old girl at a party in 2003 sent shockwaves through the communities he served.
How could you reconcile the image of this jovial, big-hearted priest with the image the prosecution was portraying of an opportunistic sexual predator?
The sniggering word association between “Catholic priest” and “paedophile” planted a further seed of doubt in the minds of many.
But on Monday, almost a year after being charged and stood down, Fr Neru was acquitted, walking from Wagga court a free man.
The court of public opinion, and the media, must now heed the verdict and allow Fr Neru to continue what he does best, sharing the word of God.