A CATHOLIC priest is under police investigation over thousands of pounds of missing church funds stretching back years.

Shocked parishioners were told in a statement from their bishop that Father Graeme Bell, parish priest at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Saltcoats, North Ayrshire, was facing the probe after concerns came to light in recent days.

Statements were also read at neighbouring Catholic churches, St Peter in Chains in Ardrossan and St John the Evangelist in Stevenston, during services at the weekend.

It is understood the main focus of the probe had initially been funds set up for pilgrimages to Lourdes and missionary work in Guyana. It has since widened out to look at all parish finances.

One senior source in the church has said Fr Bell confessed to a problem with online gambling when confronted with the matter.

He had been due to effectively leave the church in the coming days for unrelated reasons after being given leave of absence by his bishop.

It is also understood a number of parishioners had contacted their new Bishop William Nolan's office in the past fortnight with their concerns. At least one other notified the police.

The Diocese of Galloway's head of finance was subsequently tasked with examining Our Lady's parish funds ahead of the announcement on Saturday that Fr Bell was being investigated and had left the parish.

One parishioner said: "We're utterly shocked. We knew something was up with Fr Graeme for a while but thought it was stress brought on by family issues.

"But on Saturday we were told he has now left and there's an investigation into financial irregularities.

"The statement was in the name of Bishop Nolan but we're told was prepared by the diocese lawyers.

"We were also told there wasn't much could be said as the police were looking into it."

Another said: "There are a lot of very stunned and angry people in the three parishes just now. People are in tears at mass and asking just what has been going on, to what extent and do how long. The only answers we're being given is that the police are looking into it.

"This is money the people of the parish have given for their parish and for causes dear to their hearts."

Bishop Nolan is currently out of the country, with the matter being dealt with by other senior clergy in the diocese.

It is understood others associated with the running of the parish financial affairs will also be asked about their understanding of how Fr Bell ran Our Lady's in the coming days.

A statement on the website read simply: "As you will all be aware by now Father Graeme has now left our parish and Canon Poland has been appointed parish administrator."

A specialist in church, or canon, law, Fr Bell has 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.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Galloway said: "Fr. Graeme Bell recently received permission from Bishop Nolan, to take a leave of absence and to resign his position as Parish Priest of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Saltcoats. This was due to begin on Monday 1st June.

"On Wednesday 27th May a report was passed to Police Scotland alleging financial irregularities in the parish. Police enquires are ongoing and Fr

Bell has vacated the parish house. The Diocese of Galloway will continue to assist the police in their investigations."