Bishop Bernt Eidsvig, leader of the Catholic Church in Oslo, won’t have to fight charges that he knowingly took part in what state prosecutors claim was massive church membership fraud. The church itself, however, has been fined and its finance director charged with allegedly inflating membership to secure more state funding.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Oslo (Oslo katolske bispedømme, OKB) will meet state authorities in an Oslo court on Friday. The church has filed suit in an effort to overturn the state’s demand that the church repay NOK 40.5 million that the Catholic Church received in state church membership support, on allegedly fraudulent grounds. Newspaper Klassekampen reported on Tuesday that the church claims the state’s repayment demand violates human rights because it discriminates against the Catholics.
All organized faiths in Norway are entitled to financial support from the state based on membership numbers. The Catholic Church got in trouble in 2014, though, after newspaper Dagbladet reported how church employees went through telephone directories, looking for names of immigrants who may have come to Norway from Catholic countries. Once the name was matched with his or her personnummer (the equivalent of a social security number in Norway), thousands of people are believed to have been unwittingly listed as members of the Catholic Church, which then applied for financial aid based on allegedly inflated membership numbers.
The church admitted inflating membership, with Eidsvig promising its practices would be cleaned up. A few months later however, Norwegian police raided the offices of the Catholic diocese in Oslo and charged leaders with fraud.
On Monday, state prosecutors in Oslo reported they were issuing a fine of NOK 1 million against the church, for seeking and receiving state funds to which they were not entitled. Charges of aggravated fraud against the finance director of the Oslo diocese were also upheld.
The case against Bishop Eidsvig, however, was dropped for lack of evidence. “There are no grounds (for charges) that Eidsvig has had any direct involvement with the ‘telephone catalog method'” that the church as acknowledged using, wrote the prosecuting authority in a press release.
The prosecutors also concluded that Eidsvig didn’t have such a clear understanding of the church’s membership registration practice that there were grounds to hold him personally responsible for not stepping in and halting it.
The church’s case against the state, meanwhile, is due to proceed next week in the Oslo City Court. The church argues that the state is discriminating against it, with its claim for reimbursement of membership support funds. Court documents reviewed by Klassekampen indicate the church will argue that the state is guilty of treating the Catholic Church more harshly than other faiths. Members of other Nordic state churches, for example, can be automatically registered as members of the Norwegian church. That practice, however, differs markedly from the Catholic Church’s “telephone catalog method,” reported Klassekampen. Lawyers for the state and the church declined comment until the case gets underway.