Priest hooked on online roulette jailed for taking parish funds

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A Catholic priest who plundered £96,000 of parish funds after becoming addicted to “easy and unregulated” online gambling has been jailed for ten months.

Father Graeme Bell was forced to leave St Mary’s in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, a year ago after confessing to church authorities, who reported financial irregularities to police.

It then emerged that he had developed an addiction to playing roulette on the internet, which he funded with church money.

At Kilmarnock sheriff court, Bell, of Kilwinning, admitted embezzlement at the chapel, also known as Our Lady, Star of the Sea, between March and May last year.

Gerry Brown, for the defence, handed over letters of support from church figures, parishioners and a psychologist as he urged Sheriff Alistair Watson not to jail Bell. The solicitor-advocate said: “The accused is here today with supporting friends and his brother. You have a letter from Gamblers Anonymous and he’s attending there regularly.

“He’s 41 years of age and he is, or was, a good man. He has given his life to God, the church, his parishioners, society in general and individuals, regardless of background.

“He is loved and respected as kind and caring. What happened was he had reached a stage when he was not behaving as a law-abiding individual. His actions were life-changing and the decision of the court today will be life-changing. Whatever happens today he has to face up to canon law in respect of his vocation.”

Gifts totalling £42,500 had come from supporters to repay the stolen money, with £30,000 from the diocese and the balance from an insurance payout.

Mr Brown said Bell had developed anxiety and depression and found it difficult to ask for help, but the sheriff said Bell’s issue was “not a medical condition but a psychological addiction”.

Sheriff Watson said he considered there were some exceptional circumstances but in cases with a similar background, sentences of two to four years could be expected. “This was a series of deliberate acts over an extended period. That, in my view, points to custody. It was the money of the church which would have been used for charitable and other good purposes.”

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Johnnie Moore

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