UPDATED: Norwegian police raided the offices of the Catholic Church’s diocese in Oslo on Thursday, and charged the diocese, Bishop Bernt Eidsvig and the church’s finance director with serious fraud. The church leaders are suspected of wrongfully claiming as much as NOK 50 million (USD 6.6 million) in state support by presenting fraudulent membership statistics.
Earlier this week, the county governor (fylkesmann) for Oslo and Akershus reported the diocese to the police for allegedly misrepresenting its church membership. Religious denominations are eligible for state funding in Norway based on their membership statistics.
“The venture Oslo katolske bispedømmet (OKB) is charged with serious fraud, and the sum is for NOK 50 million that has been illegally claimed in state support,” Kristin Rusdal, a prosecutor for the Oslo Police District, told state broadcaster NRK. Rusdal noted that OKB, the Catholic diocese in Oslo, handles the central membership register for the Catholic Church in Norway.
Newspaper Dagbladet has reported that the diocese is accused of registering virtually all immigrants to Norway who come from largely Catholic countries as members of the Catholic Church in Norway, without asking them if they wished to join the church. The church is thus suspected of having received millions of kroner in state support based on invalid membership numbers.
NRK reported that the police raided both the offices of the diocese and two private homes, but wouldn’t say who owns the homes. Dagbladet reported that one of the homes is believed to belong to Eidsvig, who serves as bishop of the Catholic Church for the entire country. “We are searching for documents that can provide a foundation for the claims against the church in this case,” Rusdal said. “I can’t say anything more concrete.”
She said that 12 police investigators arrived unannounced at the diocese Thursday morning. “Our people were allowed in and those who were there cooperated well with the police,” she said. Among them was Gunhild Ficarra, a secretary for the diocese who told NRK “this is no fun at all.”
Bishop has denied intentional deceit
Dagbladet has reported that Eidsvig was made aware in 2012 that the church was registering immigrants as members of the church without their knowledge. In 2013, the bishop’s council voted to phase out the practice but it nonetheless continued. Eidsvig told Dagbladet earlier this week that there was no intention to manipulate membership numbers and he doesn’t think the diocese is criminally liable.
“The question is whether there was an intention, I think, to register people who are not Catholics,” Eidsvig told Dagbladet. “We have never tried to do that.” He conceded there was “no doubt” the church had registered people who were not Catholics, “but I don’t think you’ll find a clean register in any church community, not that that’s any excuse.”
Dagbladet obtained a copy of an email sent to the county governor by a whistleblower within the church, raising concerns about how church membership was being handled by the diocese leadership. The church has earlier admitted that it registered thousands of immigrants based on their nationality, without the immigrants knowing they’d been listed as members of the diocese.
Lars Holo, a lawyer for the diocese, was on holiday abroad and said he couldn’t comment on the expanded charges against Bishop Eidsvig. He told NRK, however, that he was surprised by the charges since they come “while the diocese is in the midst of straightening things up and going along with the demands from the county governor, and before the deadline for meeting them has expired.”