Catholic Church accused of defrauding Norway of €5.7m

The Catholic Church in Norway stands accused of defrauding the state of €5.7m by inflating membership numbers and could see its leading bishop face a six-year prison sentence.

Between 2010 and 2014, the Catholic Church in Norway is accused of bumping up membership numbers by as much as 65,000 in order to receive greater state subsidies, an Oslo police spokesperson told Newsweek.

Norwegian police have charged Bernt Ivar Eidsvig, the bishop of Oslo, along with the financial manager of Oslo diocese and the diocese itself, with gross economic fraud of up to 50m Norwegian krone (€5.7m).

The local Oslo government body which distributes state funds to religious institutions is also claiming back the alleged over-payment and this week rejected an explanatory report which the church put forward in March.

The allegations were originally reported by Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet last year.

Lisa Wade, a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic diocese of Oslo, told Newsweek that bishop Eidsvig would not be resigning and had the full support of Rome.

"He's in constant dialogue with the Vatican but since we believe we have not done anything illegal and we have the support of the Vatican, he will not step down until anything changes in the case," says Wade.

However, Wade admits that improper methods were used to calculate the number of Catholics in Norway for up to four years. These include some church employees automatically registering as Catholic people with Polish names found in the phonebook, a practice Wade says was promptly stopped when it was discovered last October.

Wade says that the church has struggled under the weight of an influx of Catholic immigrants, who have come to Norway and practised their religion but failed to register with the church.

"It's not like being part of a golf club. When people come from abroad and they are Catholic, they just start going to mass and they don't think about registering because no other countries have this solution," says Wade. She says Norway is the only European country where subsidies granted to the church are dependent on its membership numbers.

In a recently published video, bishop Eidsvig claimed that the number of Catholics in Oslo diocese had tripled to 120,000 between 2004 and 2012, and that 50% of the country's Catholic population are Polish immigrants.

The country's official statistics body put the number of Roman Catholics at 140,109 as of 1 January 2014.

Norwegian police raided the diocese of Oslo's offices as part of the investigation in February. Kristin Rusdal, the Oslo police spokesperson, told Newsweek the police hoped to have enough evidence to bring a prosecution by the end of the year and that the bishop and financial officer could face incarceration.

"If we find that their knowledge and responsibility in this is so that there is enough to charge them after the investigation and put forward an indictment, then it would end up in court and the sentencing frame for this is six years in prison. It probably wouldn't be that high but that's the maximum," says Rusdal.

The Catholic Church in Norway has faced scrutiny before. In 2010, the Norwegian church and the Vatican admitted that a former Norwegian bishop had resigned after he was discovered to have abused an altar boy two decades earlier. The Vatican said church authorities found out about the abuse in January 2009 but did act upon it until it was reported in 2010 by Norwegian newspaper Adresseavisen.