Vatican fires German bishop for lavish style

Vatican fires German bishop for lavish style

VATICAN CITY - Agence France-Presse
Vatican fires German bishop for lavish style

Pope Francis looks on during his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican October 23, 2013. REUTERS Photo

Pope Francis temporarily expelled a German bishop Oct. 23 from his diocese due to a scandal over a 31 million euro project to build a new residence complex, but refused popular calls to remove him permanently.

The Vatican did not say how long Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst would spend away from the diocese of Limburg and gave no information on where he would go or what he would do. It said his fate would ultimately be decided by the outcome of a church commission investigation into the expenditures.

At the center of the controversy is the 31-million-euro price tag for the construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst has said the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because of regulations on buildings under historical protection.

The bishop flew to Rome last week with low-cost airline Ryanair to explain himself to Francis, following accusations he took a business-class ticket on a trip to India and squandered money.

His private quarters in a new diocesan building are reported to have cost some 2.9 million euros and included a 63-square-meter dining room and a 15,000 euro bathtub, using the revenue from a religious tax in Germany. The reports have caused a scandal in Germany and sparked calls for greater transparency in Catholic Church finances, a reform aim of the new pope who has called for a “poor Church for the poor.”

A Vatican statement said the bishop “was currently not in a position to carry out his episcopal ministry” and that he was ordered to leave the diocese while an investigation and audit into cost over-runs is held.

The diocese will be administered in the bishop’s absence by a vicar. Asked for a reaction after yesterday’s news, government spokesman Georg Streiter said: “There is no comment from the German government. This is an internal matter for the Church.” The 53-year-old bishop is under fire over the ostentatious building project in the ancient town of Limburg, which includes a museum, conference halls, a chapel and private apartments. The project was approved by his predecessor and was initially valued at 5.5 million euros but the final bill ballooned to 31 million euros, including a 783,000-euro garden.

Tebartz-van Elst is also accused of giving false statements in court about an expensive flight he took to India to visit poor communities.

God is ‘prisoner’

Prosecutors say the bishop gave false statements under oath in a Hamburg court battle against news weekly Der Spiegel when he denied having told the magazine’s journalist that he flew business class. Anger that taxes paid to the Church by ordinary Germans are apparently being squandered has led to demonstrations outside his residence.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis yesterday called for a more humane justice system, saying God too was “a prisoner” of the world’s injustices and was in every cell. “God is a prisoner too. He is inside the cell,” Francis said at an audience with Italian prison chaplains in the Vatican. “He is a prisoner of our egoism, of our systems, of the many injustices... that punish the weak while the big fish swim freely,” the pope said. He also spoke of reforms to the justice system.

“You have spoken of a justice system for reconciliation, a justice system of hope, of open doors, of new horizons,” he said. “This is no utopia. It can happen,” Pope Francis further added.