Not long after he was elected in March, Pope Francis promised to trim the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church, setting a personal example by shunning the usual pomp and circumstance that goes with the papacy. He lives in a spartan suite a simple hostel on the Vatican grounds rather than the opulent Vatican apartments overlooking St. Peter’s square. He has opted for Fiat cars instead of the armored Mercedes “Popemobile” favored by his predecessors. He also refuses to upgrade his wardrobe, wearing black priest garb under his white vestments instead of the usual white papal pants that don’t show through the satin cloaks. He sits in wooden chairs instead of gilded thrones, and his ring is made of silver, not gold. In one of his first public speeches, he said, “Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor.”
Apparently the pope’s message did not make it to Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the bishop of Limburg, Germany, who admits to spending some $42 million on opulent new digs. Now Tebartz-van Elst, who was appointed by Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI, has been summoned to Rome to answer to the pope after a German newspaper outed the sins of the big spending bishop. Tebartz-van Elst had told his parishioners, whose contributions covered the building costs, that the renovation project would come in at around $7.4 million for upgraded living quarters and a new chapel. Registered Catholics pledge a part of their taxes to the German Church so even Catholics from other dioceses paid a price for the prelate’s excesses.
Tebartz-van Elst’s new headquarters include a $3 million marble courtyard with running holy water, according to Bild, which ran an itemized tally of the bishop’s expenditures. Lush sculpted gardens, which are not accessible to the general congregation, cost more than $1 million, according to German Der Spiegel, which ran a photo spread of the bishop’s estate called “Pimping the Diocese”.
He is also being investigated for lying about a recent pilgrimage to India to minister to the poor. He had told parishioners that he made the trip on modest means, when he actually flew first class on Lufthansa.
The bishop reportedly spent a cool $4 million on his own living quarters, filing them with fine furnishings including gilded door handles, a $33,000 dining table, $472,000 built-in closets and a $20,000 bathtub. He also has a sauna, wine cellar and fireplace, not to mention specially commissioned religious statues. The so-called Bishop of Bling also spent $3.6 million on a new chapel and $1.5 million on sleeping quarters for visiting clergy. When confronted with the excesses, Tebartz-van Elst told Bild, “Those who know me know I don’t need any kind of grandiose lifestyle.”
But the contractor on the project, defending himself against the bishop’s claims that he hadn’t been told the costs were rising, told the German press that the bishop had always been given an estimate for the project that was six times higher. He is also being investigated for lying about a recent pilgrimage to India to minister to the poor. He had told parishioners that he made the trip on modest means, when he actually flew first class on Lufthansa, allegedly burying the expense by calling it a donation to a local diocese once there. This from the bishop who once told the faithful “Renewal begins where the efforts toward making due with less are made. The person of faith is dirt poor and rich in mercy.”
His lack of transparency has angered the 600,000 members of the diocese, who have started projecting the words “Thou Shalt Not Steal” on the cathedral’s stone walls. Chancellor Angela Merkel even weighed in: “Of course, it is not the German government’s place to give any advice, but I may express the hope that it will be a solution for the faithful, for people’s confidence in their church,” her spokesman Steffen Seibert said. Calls for Tebartz-van Elst’s resignation have echoed across the country. “The bishop has made it clear that any decision about his service as a bishop lies in the hands of the Holy Father,” the diocese said in a written statement.
As a consolation, Tebartz-van Elst did fly on discount provider Ryan Air when he came to Rome this week. Whether he will be relegated to a lesser posting or be defrocked for his decadence remains in the hands of the Holy See, which just appointed Pietro Parolin as its new austerity-minded secretary of state. No matter what, it seems unlikely Tebartz-van Elst will get to enjoy the fruits of his construction labor. It is far more likely that he will get to live words from a sermon he gave in August: “Whoever experiences poverty in person will discover the true greatness of God.” It could be that is exactly what frugal Pope Francis has in mind for the Bishop of Bling.
World from Berlin: Bishop Scandal ‘A Major Burden for Catholics’
Spiegel Online International
15 October 2013
The scandal surrounding a German bishop’s lavish spending continues to grow in Germany, as Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst awaits an audience with the pope in Rome. German editorialists say the affair could be a turning point for the Catholic Church here.
He’s been disparaged in France as “Bishop Bling Bling” and is the subject of mercilous media coverage in Germany this week. Now Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is seeking to send out a different message — one of modesty. On Sunday, he, where he is expected to have a tête-á-tête with Pope Francis later this week during which his future in the could be decided.
Tebartz is under fire for allowing costs of a new bishop’s headquarters and residence in Limburg, Germany, to swell to around one third of the bishopric’s total estimated wealth. His lavish lifestyle is the antithesis of the message being sent by Pope Francis, who has been seen driving around Vatican City in clunkers in recent weeks. Indeed, who are often shuttled around their parishes in luxury sedans.
As Tebartz awaits his audience with the pope, the controversy over the bishop’s spending is mounting in Germany. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the church crisis via her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, who said the German leader was hoping for a “solution for the faithful,” noting that “it was clear to everyone that a difficult situation had arisen,” one that was a “major burden” for Catholics and the church alike.
‘People Want Clarity’
The head of Germany’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, also flew to Rome over the weekend, saying he wanted to address the situation as quickly as possible — also at a meeting on Thursday with the pope. Zollitsch further distanced himself from Tebartz-van Elst on Monday, saying, “I am under a lot of pressure because people want clarity,” he said. “It is without a doubt a question of credibility and we are considering that,” he said.
Originally slated to cost €2.5 million ($3.37 million), the price tag on construction of Tebartz-van Elst’s new bishop’s headquarters and residence has since ballooned to over €31 million. Numerous sources involved in construction have strongly suggested that Tebartz-van Elst’s special requests, including a €15,000 bathtub, contributed significantly to those cost overruns.
Tebartz-van Elst is also in trouble for telling a SPIEGEL reporter in summer 2012 that he had taken a business-class flight to India — and not a first-class flight as theindicated — to meet the poor, a claim he repeated in two public affidavits. Public prosecutors in Hamburg, however, claim the bishop made incorrect statements and have pressed charges against him. If he is found guilty by a Hamburg district court, he would become the first bishop in the history of the church in postwar Germany to be convicted in a criminal court. Tebartz-van Elst had sued SPIEGEL, claiming false reporting.
Although public pressure is mounting for Tebartz-van Elst to step down, Germany’s Catholic bishops have remained largely silent on the issue. In the meantime, officials in Limburg and other communities that are part of the bishopric, are reporting significant increases in the number of people leaving the church — a step that requires registry at local administrative offices.
The affair remained prominent in the German media on Tuesday, with some editorialists writing that it could threaten the current hierarchy of Catholic Church bishops in Germany.
Conservative Die Welt notes that the Tebartz-van Elst situation creates a fundamental problem for the country’s bishops:
“The bishops are in a dilemma. Of course they’d be happy if Tebartz was out of the picture soon. But if he were to step down, it could be the start of a dangerous development for them — one that could shake the understanding of church office and weaken the position of Catholic dignitaries in the long run. Catholic bishops are neither managers nor politicians, even if their careers do involve some similar tasks. Their spiritual and worldly responsibilities are derived from God and not from the trust of a supervisory board or the will of voters. … So the church places very high barriers for bishops stepping down early or being removed from office.”
“Because of this sacral understanding, bishops have never had to adhere to the laws of a media democracy. No matter how severely they have been criticized, their position has been untouchable.”
“If Tebartz-van Elst loses his job because the public pressure becomes too much and not because the church apparatus made the decision, then the church would be bending to public anger. That’s why the German bishops are avoiding taking any clear positions. They know this could become a first breach in the dike that would threaten them. Indeed, the case of Limburg will set a precedent. If critics continue for long enough to lash out at church representatives, there’s a chance the church will let them fall. This is a message the bishops want to avoid at all costs.”
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
“Just blame the pope. Perhaps the criticism of this bishop wouldn’t have been as radical without this pope. Perhaps people would have said, ‘This is just the way Catholic Church is, in Germany particularly … Without this new pope, Tebartz-van Elst might have been considered the fitting spiritual specimen of a church that preaches water but drinks wine and that veils its self-love and its egoism with fine talk of the love of God. Without the pope, the criticism of the little parish prince would have died down pretty quickly. … But the criticism isn’t fading — because the pope and the demands he is making of the church are an indictment of the very system Tebartz-van Elst embodies.”
“This pope took on the name Francis, whose message is in stark contrast to the pomp of the church hierarchy. Live in poverty for the poor. This is the Franciscan message the pope has heralded. The excesses and untruths of this German bishop now raise doubts about this course. That makes the frivolous antics of this bishop so dangerous for the pope.”
“This is not just about the bishop as a person. He is just one eccentric albeit mediocre representative of a system in which money, possessions and wealth have been and still remain important. The bishop is now a risk factor for this system. He draws attention to the peculiarities of an apparatus that not only allowed Tebartz to become bishop, but also gave him the power to do what he likes without any limits or control — because this is how the Catholic hierarchy is constructed. Other bishops are smart enough to refrain from exercising this power, to act reservedly and listen to advisory boards.”
Center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
“There was no length to which Tebartz-van Elst and his general vicar didn’t go to evade showing the supposed meddlers the exact financing of the €31 million bishop’s headquarters. They stripped the cathedral chapter of power, installed a diocesan finance council whose members had to agree to secrecy, and outsourced the bookkeeping to an external auditing firm. But the wall of silence didn’t hold. … With an energy that could almost be described as criminal, the bishop and his helpers have ignored every single legal hurdle and appear to have defended themselves against guileless controllers right up to the end. But this could have legal consequences for all involved, because a third of the assets the diocese has built up over almost two centuries has been squandered within just three years.”
— Daryl Lindsey
German dioceses open books in wake of Tebartz-van Elst scandal
While ‘luxury bishop’ Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst awaits his fate in the Vatican, five German Catholic dioceses have made their finances public. Tebartz-van Elst continues to face calls for his resignation.
15 October 2013
German Archbishop Robert Zollitsch (pictured above) is also in Rome and will brief Pope Francis on the situation in the Limburg diocese, where scandal has hit after estimates put the eventual cost of construction for the bishop’s new residential complex at 31 million euros ($41.8 million). A week of front-page headlines in Germany prompted the decision for the Bishop of Limburg to accompany Zollitsch on his long-scheduled visit to the Vatican.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s private quarters in a complex builty next to the city’s historic cathedral are believed to have cost 2.9 million euros alone, reportedly including a free-standing bathtub worth 15,000 euros.
The Bishop of Limburg’s troubles are twofold: He also faces a fine from a Hamburg court for allegedly providing false testimony in a case he filed against Der Spiegel magazine, which reported he had flown first class to India to visit poor children.
The budget overrun in Limburg has prompted the dioceses of Cologne, Munich, Essen, Hamburg and Speyer to make their finances public. The former revealed assets as of December 2012 of 166.2 million euros, posting an income of 9.6 million euros in the same year.
The archdiocese of Munich posted total assets of 27.6 million euros, while the diocese of Speyer had a worth of about 46.5 million.
The issue is fast becoming more than just an inquiry into the actions of Tebartz-van Elst. The perceived extravagance flies in the face of Pope Francis’ call for a “poor church for the poor,” and there is keen interest in how the Vatican will act.
Speaking on Tuesday, the Christian Democrats’ special representative for church and religious affairs, Maria Flachsbarth, called the news from the diocese of Limburg “disturbing.” Flaschbarth also said that should the allegations against Tebartz-van Elst prove true, this should perhaps prompt structural changes in the Church, not just personnel changes.
ph/msh (dpa, AFP)
German ‘luxury bishop’ flies to Rome for decision on his job
(Reuters) – A German Catholic bishop under fire for huge cost overruns on a luxury residence and alleged lying under oath has flown to Rome to meet Vatican officials and possibly Pope Francis to decide if he can stay in office.
A spokesman confirmed on Sunday that Limburg Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst had departed but would not say when or how long he would be away. He declined to comment on media reports the prelate flew on a budget airline.
Tebartz-van Elst has caused a crisis in the German church for building a luxury residence and office complex at a time when the new pope is stressing humility and service to the poor.
“The bishop has made it clear that any decision about his service as a bishop lies in the hands of the Holy Father (Pope Francis),” said a statement issued by the diocese on Saturday.
“The bishop is saddened by the escalation of the current discussion. He sees and regrets that many believers are suffering under the current situation,” it said.
FOCUS ON FRANCIS’S RESPONSE
An initial audit of his spending, ordered after a Vatican monitor visited Limburg last month, revealed the project cost at least 31 million euros, six times more than planned.
Tebartz-van Elst, whose baroque style was more in line with the conservative model of Roman Catholicism projected by retired Pope Benedict, has also been accused of lying under oath about a first-class flight to visit poverty programs in India.
The head of the German Church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has said the scandal about the cost overruns and allegations of lying were hurting the whole church here and he would discuss it with Pope Francis during a visit to Rome this week.
The pope’s response will be closely watched as a barometer of how far he will go to promote frugality and simplicity in a church plagued for decades by scandals of clerical sexual abuse and opaque financial transactions at the Vatican bank.
The Limburg case presents special problems because Tebartz-van Elst, at 53, is too young to simply be retired off as some bishops in abuse scandals have been. In the Catholic Church, a bishop retains his status even if he loses his office.
State prosecutors in Hamburg said last week they wanted the bishop to be fined for making false affidavits about the first-class flight to India while denying a report about it by the magazine Der Spiegel.
Tebartz-van Elst said he flew business class but the Hamburg-based weekly has made public a mobile phone video recording of a conversation which triggered action by prosecutors.
COSTS SET TO RISE?
The Welt am Sonntag newspaper said on Sunday the final price tag for the residence and office complex next to Limburg’s hilltop Romanesque cathedral could run to as much as 40 million euros because of costs which were not in the earlier estimate.
The German bishops’ conference, which set up a special commission to investigate Limburg’s books, is due to issue a final report before the end of the year.
The “luxury bishop” story has become front-page news in Germany, deeply embarrassing a church enjoying an upswing thanks to Pope Francis’s popularity after years of criticism for hiding sexual abuse cases among clergy.
Tebartz-van Elst, once considered a possible future cardinal, has angered many Catholic priests and lay people in Germany and become the butt of jokes in the media.
One satirical article in the daily Die Welt wrote that leading European luxury goods makers had stepped in as sponsors to help defray the cost of his stately residence.
The bishop, who has been openly accused of authoritarian and secretive management by his closest advisers, apologized after the Vatican monitor’s visit last month for “any carelessness or misjudgment”.
(Reporting by Oliver Denzer; writing by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Tom Heneghan)