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Priest jailed for 10 months after gambling away nearly £100,000 in parish funds

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The priest was told that only for background reports and his guilty plea he would have faced a sentence of between two and four years.

Father Bell, 41, had been parish priest at Our Lady Star of the Sea church, known locally as St Mary’s, in Saltcoats.

Kilmarnock Sheriff Court heard how Father Nolan’s diocese was able to claim £30,000 through its insurance, while friends and family of the jailed priest raised a further £43,000.

The priest made up the rest of the missing £96,000 from his own pocket.

Sheriff Alistair Watson also heard how Father Bell had been seeking counselling and attending Gamblers’ Anonymous to seek help with his problem.

Defence solicitor Gerard Brown said his client was a “responsible, kind and caring” person whose “anxiety and depression reached a stage where he was not behaving as a law abiding individual”.

He also asked the sheriff to avoid a custodial sentence and to “treat this case as exceptional and depart from a period of imprisonment”.

But Sheriff told the priest he would face a jail term with his tariff reduced to 15 months because of the background reports and brought down further because of his guilty plea.

He said: “This is a very significant breach of trust and a substantial amount of funds.

“All the difficulties you have did not remove your free will. As an intelligent being you deliberately undertook the actions you undertook.

“The money of the church would’ve been allocated to charity and good causes.

“I accept your very genuine expressions of shame, remorse and genuine attempt to out matters right as best you can.

“I can take an exceptionally low starting point for the sentence but I feel I would be failing in my duty if I did not impose custody.”

With the case now having concluded in the civil courts Father Bell is likely to face further sanctions as the case goes through a church tribunal once released from prison.

But one local Catholic said: “Some members of the community wanted a much longer sentence than this. There’s still a lot of anger. Graeme Bell should now resign from the church instead of still leaving his bishop with a responsibility for him. It’s the right and decent thing to do.”

A spokesman for the Diocese of Galloway said: “This is a sad day for the Diocese of Galloway as, Father Graeme Bell, is sentenced. However, given amounts involved it is not surprising that he has received a custodial sentence and we hope that in prison he will continue to receive the support that he needs and which the diocese has offered him over the past year.

“This has been a very difficult year for the parishioners of St Mary’s Saltcoats. Unfortunately, until the case went to Court, the Diocese was not able to make any comment nor correct some of the erroneous speculation which followed.

“Now that the case has concluded, Bishop Nolan will be meeting with the parish council of St Mary’s on Thursday 16 June and will celebrate Mass in the parish on the weekend of July 8th and 9th.

“Bishop Nolan wishes to express his gratitude to the parishioners of St Mary’s and St John’s in Stevenston, for their patience and fortitude during these very difficult months and to Canon Martin Poland for looking after St Mary’s Saltcoats.”

Father Bell confessed to an online gambling addiction when confronted with the matter last year when the missing funds came to light.

The probe had initially centred on funds set up for pilgrimages to Lourdes and missionary work in Guyana but was quickly widened out to look at all parish finances.

Father Bell had been due to effectively leave the church for unrelated reasons, understood to be connected to his family, days before his arrest.

When he first revealed his misuse of parish funds he was immediately removed from his post and the police informed. 

A specialist in canon law, Father Bell had a national profile on the Catholic church’s national body which deals with disputes between priests and their bishops as well as marriage annulments.

But as he used to work for the body in Scotland, Bishop Nolan is to ask the Vatican to appoint a tribunal in England or Ireland to carry out the investigation.

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