Norwegian police raided the offices of Bishop Bernt Eidsvig, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Oslo, after a prosecutor accused the church of defrauding the state of $6.57 million by falsely registering people as Catholics. Eidsvig has formally denied the accusation and said he's "extremely unhappy" with the charges, though he admitted that mistakes were made.
"The fraud happened when they enrolled people in a register without the members actually knowing they were being enrolled in the church," Oslo's police prosecutor, Kristin Rusdal, told Reuters.
"Using this register they applied for funding from the state and municipalities, which is distributed on the basis of how many members the church have," Rusdal said.
Local newspaper Dagbladet said that the diocese is being accused of registering all immigrants to Norway who come from largely Catholic countries as members of the Catholic Church in Norway, but without asking them if they want to join the church.
Statistics in Norway show that Roman Catholic Church membership in the country has been increasing in recent years, up to 140,000 in 2014 from 67,000 in 2010. The majority of the population officially belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Eidsvig said in a press release, however, that the church had no intention of committing the alleged fraud.
"Our intention was never to register anyone (as a member of the church) against their will, or to obtain support for non-Catholics," he said.
In a separate interview he insisted that there was never any intention to register people who are not Catholics.
"We have never tried to do that," Eidsvig said. He admitted, however, that he had "no doubt" that the church had indeed registered people who are not Catholic, but said that "I don't think you'll find a clean register in any church community, not that that's any excuse."
Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten said that the bishop was questioned for four hours by police on Thursday, and at least five other employees of the diocese were also questioned. The church's finance director, who has yet to be publicly identified, is also being charged, but is denying criminal liability.
Rusdal pointed out that Eidsvig is not being charged with keeping the money for himself.
"But I would like to stress that Eidsvig isn't charged with having put money into his own pocket," the police prosecutor said. "He is charged for fraud where the gains have gone to the Oslo Catholic diocese."