The Oslo Catholic Diocese has lost its case against the state and been ordered by a local court to repay around NOK 40 million (USD 4.8 million) it had received in state support. The court found that state funding sought and received by the diocese was based on fabricated membership numbers, and it was also ordered to pay NOK 421,000 in court costs.
“We are disappointed, but will take this under advisement and read through the grounds of the verdict thoroughly,” Lisa Wade, administrative leader for the diocese, told news bureau NTB.
The court declared that the Catholic church in Oslo had no right to receive the amount of state of support it had applied for and received based on the membership numbers it had provided. All organized faiths in Norway are eligible to apply for state funding based on their membership.
Catholic church officials have admitted that from 2011 until 2014, staffers went through local telephone directories and claimed 50,000 new members based on “Catholic-sounding names” culled from the directories, be they Polish, Vietnamese, Spanish or Filipino, for example. Many of the people behind the names were surprised to learn they’d been included in the diocese’s membership roster. The court ruled that state support according to the law is conditional on members who “actively” have joined an organized faith themselves.
After an investigation revealed the questionable membership numbers claimed, county officials filed police charges against the Catholic diocese claiming membership manipulation and fraud. In November, state authorities also decided to issue a NOK 1 million fine against the church and its manager and finance chief was indicted. Bishop Bernt Eidsvig had also been charged but was not indicted because prosecutors couldn’t prove he was aware of the membership fraud.
In addition to suing the state to protest the demand for reimbursement, which it now has lost, the Oslo Catholic Diocese also has contested the million-kroner fine. Wade claims the church has apologized repeatedly for its “telephone catalogue methods” but does not consider itself guilty of serious and intentional fraud. NTB reported that its appeal of the fine is thus also headed to court as a criminal case.
The Oslo diocese thus faces claims amounting to NOK 41.4 million based on the reimbursement demand, the fine and court costs. The Catholic Church also is likely to be hit by claims for membership reimbursement in other communities around Norway.