A CATHOLIC priest has pleaded guilty to embezzling almost £100,000 from church funds after admitting to an online gambling problem.

Father Graeme Bell, a priest in Ayrshire, was convicted at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court of stealing £96,000 from the parish between March and May 2015.

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

READ MORE: Church organist told to ‘keep quiet’ after gay porn allegation‏

He will find out next month if he will receive a custodial sentence for the offence, with sentence deferred until June 14 for a background reports.

Father Bell's bail was continued until sentencing. One senior church source said it was in the balance as to whether he would be jailed for the offence, which has sent shockwaves through the Catholic community in North Ayrshire.

He is understood to have confessed to an online gambling addiction when confronted with the matter last year.

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.

The Herald: Fareham council wants to ban high stakes gambling machines from betting shops

Father Bell had been due to effectively leave the church for unrelated reasons, understood to be connected to his family, days before his arrest after being given leave of absence by his bishop.

A number of parishioners had contacted their new Bishop William Nolan's office in the weeks leading up to Father Bell's arrest with their concerns, with at least one notifying the police.

One parish source said: "People are surprised and horrified at the amount and are asking whether any of this will be returned and specifically who or what has lost out as a result of this.

"There's also a sense of frustration for parishioners around the lack of information being shared with them and whether the diocese and church committees should have picked up on this earlier.

"An apology from Graham Bell and the church would be nice at the very least."

READ MORE: Archaeologists find church where William Wallace was made Guardian of Scotland

A specialist in church, or 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.

He remains a priest and even if he is jailed it is open to question as to whether the process of canon law which will follow will see him defrocked.

Father Bell is also like to be offered counselling or help once sentenced.

One senior church source said: "What happens to Graeme Bell is now in the balance. He has pleaded guilty and that will be factored in, as will the fact he's admitted to a problem and will seek assistance for that.

"On the other hand, the Diocese of Galloway operates as a charity. This is hard-earned charitable money, donated by people who often struggle themselves financially and have given over their money in good faith to their priest. This is a very very serious breach of that trust.

READ MORE: Church invites pro-gay Catholics to join service

"The church did what it had to do. As soon as the issues came to light the policed were informed and the criminal justice system was left to conclude its processes. There was really nothing parishioners could've been told."

The source added: "I'd be very very surprised if counselling and support was not offered by the church as the prerequisite to doing anything with Graeme Bell after sentencing by the courts."

A spokesman for the Diocese of Galloway said: "The Diocese will await the sentencing decision in this case before making any further comment."