A Scottish Catholic priest serving a ten month jail sentence for embezzling £100,000 of church money to fund an alleged gambling problem has apparently asked that Pope Francis allow him to quit the clergy.
Fr Graeme Bell was parish priest of Our Lady Star of the Sea church, known locally as St Mary's, in Saltcoats before being convicted of stealing from the Ayrshire parish between March and May 2015 after admitting to an online gambling problem.
Kilmarnock Sheriff Court heard last month how Bell, 41, suffered from anxiety and depression which "reached a stage where he was not behaving as a law abiding individual".
Now, according to The Herald, the local bishop, William Nolan, has visited the congregation and informed parishioners that Bell has asked to leave the priesthood, a process known as laicisation.
The move — which would remove the Church's duty of care to Bell and stop any Church investigation — must be approved by Pope Francis and could take over a year to conclude.
The Herald reported that Bell will be allowed day release in the near future and is unlikely to serve the full ten months of his sentence.
A source told the newspaper: "Bishop Nolan promised to come to Saltcoats and he did, telling the parish what was happening with Father and that he had asked to be laicised. I think had there been an investigation he would have had to leave but this would suggest he's decided he doesn't want to live in grace and favour. It also saves Bill Nolan a lot of hassle with canon lawyers and a case would could have strung along for years. Graeme Bell has probably realised he has cost the church enough."
The police probe started immediately after Bell admitted his misuse of parish funds, at which point he was also removed from his post.
Initially, the investigation had focused on funds established for pilgrimages to Lourdes and missionary work in Guyana but it was swiftly broadened to look at all parish finances.
Friends and family of the priest have raised £43,000 towards paying the funds back, and Bell has sought counselling and attended meetings of Gamblers' Anonymous.