For the first time ever, a Norwegian bishop has left his state church post because of personal bankruptcy. Ernst Baasland wound up a long string of farewell ceremonies and church services in his district in western Norway over the weekend, amidst muttering that he should have left quietly and apologized to those who lost millions they had lent to his family.
Baasland was by most accounts a popular and successful bishop in Rogaland County. The 63-year-old theologian also holds a doctorate degree and has been a professor specializing in the New Testament.
He became bishop in Stavanger in 1998, but last fall he resigned under a cloud of personal financial problems. For years, his wife had been borrowing money from friends and relatives — allegedly without his knowledge — to support what they thought was a high-tech business venture being launched by one of their four sons.
Instead, the son, Bjarte Baasland, was using the money to support an online gambling habit. The game was over when one of the Baasland family’s creditors, who had lent some NOK 12 million (about USD 2 million), finally filed charges and a bankruptcy petition against Ernst and Bodhild Baasland.
As the severity of the drama unfolded, Baasland’s wife and son were charged with fraud and a warrant was put out for the son’s arrest. He was abroad and didn’t turn himself in for months.
Friends and family who had lent the couple money on behalf of their son felt their friendship and trust had been betrayed. Some have lost their own homes and holiday homes because the promise of returns from a high-tech venture promoted by Bodhild Baasland never materialized. Their money was instead gambled away.
Bishop Baasland ultimately resigned as bishop after his appeal of the forced bankruptcy failed. He and his wife, who still faces fraud charges, now live under a bankruptcy administrator, their properties have been sold and they are only allowed to retain NOK 12.500 a month of future earnings.
Baasland nonetheless was hailed by many church officials and members of his congegration, who maintain he was a good bishop. Others feel the farewell ceremonies were inappropriate and that Baasland didn’t deserve any adulation.
Theology professor Trygve Wyller told newspaper Aftenposten that he can understand Baasland’s need to resign with a certain degree of formality. “But I don’t think he’s realized the dimensions of why he had to quit before his time was up,” Wyller said. “I don’t see the need for such a pompous farewell in the middle of all this.”
Christine Finsnes, who was among those who suffered large losses on loans to the Baaslands, said she has wanted “an acknowledgement that Ernst understands and is sorry for the losses he and his family have caused others. That they have abused our confidence and friendship.”
Baasland, who long has preached about reconciliation, hasn’t been willing to comment on whether he has reconciled with his son or those who lost money on his family. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) said he intends to move to South Africa and conduct academic research.