Bishop Bernt Eidsvig, the top official of the Catholic Church in Norway, has formally denied charges that he and other leaders of the Catholic diocese in Oslo swindled the Norwegian state to the tune of NOK 50 million. He claimed the leadership and staff of the church were “extremely unhappy” over the charges and would cooperate with the police investigation.
Eidsvig, the diocese itself and its finance director were charged on Thursday with fraudulently obtaining state funding based on false membership statistics for the church. County officials had already accused the diocese of inflating its membership numbers, which are used to determine amounts of state funding for all religious organizations in Norway.
“Our intention was never to register anyone (as a member of the church) against their will, or to obtain support for non-Catholics,” Eidsvig wrote in a press release Thursday evening. The church has been accused of registering all immigrants to Norway who come from largely Catholic countries, without asking them whether they actually wanted to join the church.
Underwent lengthy questioning
Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Eidsvig underwent four hours of questioning by police on Thursday after he was charged and the diocese raided earlier in the day. At least five other employees of the diocese have also been questioned. None of them have been held in police custody.
The finance director, who has not been publicly identified in local media, has also denied guilt and doesn’t see any grounds for criminal liability. His defense attorney said, however, that he also had agreed to undergo questioning and would cooperate with the police investigation.
The punishment for serious fraud can be up to six years in prison. The diocese itself faces a heavy fine in addition to return of illegally obtained funding.
“But I would like to stress that Eidsvig isn’t charged with having put money into his own pocket,” prosecutor Kristin Rusdal told Aftenposten. “He is charged for fraud where the gains have gone to the Oslo Catholic diocese.”
Rusdal characterized the charges, though, as serious, especially because of the amount of money involved (USD 6.6 million at current exchange rates).
Catholics praying for the bishop and the police
Some Catholics gathered at St Olav’s Church in Oslo Thursday evening, and one told Aftenposten that they were upset by the charges and think the media glare is unfair. Priest Pål Bratbak tackled the situation at the beginning of the mass.
“It is with a heavy heart that I report that … police found it necessary to conduct a raid of the diocese,” Bratbak told the congegration. “We are doing everything in our power to cooperate with the police. Let us pray for our bishop, for the police and all those who help us straighten up this case in the diocese.”
He also shared a message from Eidsvig with the roughly 30 people assembled for the mass: “This case has become a burden for the diocese administration and myself, but not least for you who now are carrying a burden for something for which you bear no responsibility. That makes me sad. Know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Pray also for me.”