THE Catholic priest jailed for embezzling almost £100,000 of church funds has asked the Pope to allow him to quit the clergy.

Father Graeme Bell was convicted of stealing from this Ayrshire parish between March and May 2015 after admitting to an online gambling problem.

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

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However it has emerged that in the past week, the local bishop, William Nolan, has visited Father Bell's former congregation and told them the priest has asked to be quit the priesthood, a process known as laicisation.

The move requires the consent of Pope Francis and could take over a year to conclude. When completed it would remove the duty of care the Church would have for Father Bell, as well as any investigation into his behaviour under church, or 'canon', law.

It is understood he will get day release in the near future and is unlikely to serve the full 10 months, during which time he will still be supported by his diocese.

His application to quit will also save the Diocese of Galloway significant administrative expense.

A specialist in canon law, Father Bell was part of the Catholic church’s national body which deals with disputes between priests and their bishops, meaning the Vatican would have had to appoint a canon lawyer from England or Ireland to carry out the investigation.

One source said: "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."

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When he first revealed his misuse of parish funds he was immediately removed from his post and the police informed.

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.

Kilmarnock Sheriff Court heard last month how Father Bell suffered anxiety and depression which "reached a stage where he was not behaving as a law abiding individual".

The missing cash has since been returned, with friends and family of the jailed priest raising £43,000, while Father Bell has sought counselling and attended Gamblers' Anonymous.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Galloway said: “Father Graeme Bell has petitioned Pope Francis to have the obligations of the priestly life lifted so that he can live as a layman. It may take a year to 18 months for this request to be granted."

Meanwhile, the Catholic priest who found himself at the centre of the Lockerbie disaster has been ordered by doctors to step down from the pulpit or permanently lose his voice.

Canon Patrick Keegans, the parish priest in the town in 1988 and resident of the street destroyed by sections of Pan Am flight 103, killing 11 local people, as well as all those in the plane, has been told by his consultant to rest his voice completely with immediate effect.

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A statement on the cathedral website states: "The Canon’s vocal cords are damaged and he will lose his voice permanently if he does not follow the doctor’s advice. With rest his voice will heal, but it will not recover enough for him to engage in any public speaking.

Canon Keegans, therefore, will be retiring from parish ministry. He cannot conduct any services nor make phone calls."