The Oslo City Court has found the Catholic diocese in Norway’s capital guilty of fraud, after ruling in a criminal case that it illegally inflated its membership numbers and thus received excessive amounts of public funding. The court acquitted a former church official of criminal charges, but ordered the diocese to pay a fine of NOK 2 million.
The diocese (Oslo katolske bispedømme, OKB) already faces a state compensation claim of NOK 40.5 million (around USD 5 million). That’s the amount of funding that the top county official (Fylkesmannen) for Oslo and Akershus concluded had been paid out to the Catholic diocese in Oslo on the basis of the inflated membership numbers submitted by the church.
The diocese has admitted that it incorrectly registered members by going though telephone catalogues and plucking out all names of people believed to have moved to Norway from Catholic countries, or having Catholic heritage. Many of the people with, for example, Polish or Spanish names had no idea they were then listed as members of the church, and thousands didn’t want to be.
The highly questionable practice used by the church to register members nonetheless continued even after the church was supposed to have ended it in 2013. Catholic Bishop Bernt Eidsvig, who was cleared of fraud himself, apologized for the practice in 2015 but church officials have steadily denied criminal intent. They’ve initiated legal action of their own, claiming the state rules around funding distributed locally were unclear. Their appeal of the NOK 40.5 million state compensation claim, which the Oslo City Court ordered it pay earlier this year, is due to come up next summer.
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported over the weekend, meanwhile, that the Oslo court has now fined the church in the criminal case against it for its practice of listing people as members without their direct consent. A former manager and accountant for the church, however, was acquitted of serious fraud charges on the grounds the individual couldn’t be held responsible for the church’s fraud.
Neither prosecutors nor church officials are happy with the latest court ruling in what’s become a lengthy legal battle between the Catholic church and the Norwegian public sector. Prosecutors had recommended the diocese be fined NOK 5 million and sought an 18-month prison term for the church’s former manager. They’re thus considering an appeal of the acquittal and the fine, on the grounds both rulings are too mild. The court, however, found no evidence of pre-meditated manipulation of membership members, characterizing the fraud as a result of severe negligence and poor systems within the diocese.
The church is also considering another appeal. While diocese officials claim they’re pleased their former manager was cleared, pending a state appeal, they claimed in a press release that they were “disappointed” that the diocese faced a criminal fine on the grounds it “defies” their “understanding of what has happened.”
Dagsavisen has also reported recently that the diocese is now refusing to publicly release the results of its own internal investigation into what’s been ruled as membership fraud. The investigation was carried out by a priest in the Scottish tribunal of the Catholic church.