Ayrshire priest jailed for stealing £96,000 from church funds

A priest has been jailed for 10 months for embezzling 96,000 pounds. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
A priest has been jailed for 10 months for embezzling 96,000 pounds. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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A priest was jailed for ten months today for stealing nearly £100,000 from church funds to pay for an online ­gambling problem.

Father Graeme Bell, 41, was parish priest at Our Lady Star of the Sea church, in Saltcoats, Ayrshire.

He embezzled the ­money between March and May 2015 and used it to play online ­roulette while “paralysed” by his gambling addiction, ­Kilmarnock Sheriff Court heard.

Last month, Fr Bell pleaded guilty to embezzling £96,000 from the parish and sentence was deferred for him to be assessed by social workers on the most appropriate way of dealing with him.

When he returned to Kilmarnock Sheriff Court today to learn his fate, defence solicitor Gerard Brown asked for leniency for his client.

He said the first offender “is and was a good man” who has, “in a vocation, given his life to God, to the church and to his parishioners”.

He added: “And, indeed, from letters of support, to society in general and ­individuals in general, no matter their denomination or background.”

He added the shamed priest was also a “responsible, kind and caring” individual whose “anxiety and depression reached a stage where he was not behaving as a law abiding individual”.

The lawyer added: “This is a man who has taken ­responsibility for other people’s life changing moments – he has conducted marriages, baptisms and funerals.

He said £97,500 was now available to the church due to a combination of a £30,000 payout from an insurance ­policy, £42,500 in donations from Fr Bell’s friends and family and £25,000 he returned himself.

Sheriff Alistair Watson said there was only one way he could deal with the priest, who had sat stonefaced in the dock, and jailed him for ten months.

Sheriff Watson added: “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 have 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.”

The sheriff also urged Fr Bell, who the court heard ­regularly attends Gambler’s Anonymous, to continue to seek help for his gambling when he is released from jail.