[Updated: 10-23-13 8:30 am]
He’s been dubbed “the Bishop of Bling” over his extravagant spending, most prominently laying out $42 million on a sumptuous diocesan residence.
But now, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, a German bishop in Limburg, a small city in western Germany near Frankfurt, has been expelled from his diocese by Pope Francis, in one of the first major tests of the pope’s stated aim of building “a poor church for the poor.”
The Vatican confirmed Wednesday that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has been ordered to leave his residence for an unspecified period – a move just short of his resignation, Reuters reports.
The bishop is accused of embarking on a lavish spending spree, splurging $474,000 on built-in cupboards and carpentry, $135,000 for the windows of the chapel, and more than $600,000 on works of art. The ostentatious residence includes offices, his own private apartments, living quarters for nuns, and a private chapel, as well as conference halls and a museum.
What really raised eyebrows, and created indignation among many ordinary German Catholics, including the 600,000 members of the bishop’s diocese, was his purchase of a bathtub for a reported $20,000.
Together those outlays could mean that the building project will eventually cost six times its original estimate.
“Pimping the diocese” was the headline on the website of Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, which ran a gallery of photographs of the bishop and the sprawling complex.
The bishop’s apparent extravagance is sharply at odds with the humility and austerity displayed by Pope Francis since his election in March, when he replaced Pope Benedict XVI after he resigned.
The Jesuit pope has opted to be driven around in a second-hand Renault rather than the sleek black limousines favored by his predecessor, decided to live in a modest Vatican guesthouse rather than the Vatican’s grand apostolic apartments, and has accused church leaders of being “narcissists.”
He has called on bishops and priests to get out of their offices and engage with the poor and the dispossessed, and has criticized what he called the “courtier” culture within the Vatican.
“It is clear that the expression 'poor church' has become the key theme of the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis,” Monsignor Georg Ganswein, who acts as personal secretary to Pope Francis as well as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, told Il Messagero, an Italian daily, on Tuesday.
The Argentinean pontiff was placing “greater attention for the sick and the poor” at the heart of his papacy, Msgr. Ganswein said.
Time for a chat
The lack of transparency over the German bishop's project also contrasts with the Pope’s determination to reform the Vatican bank, which in the past has been accused of turning a blind eye to money laundering and tax evasion.
None of which bade well for a bishop accused of behaving like a Medici prince in his pursuit of personal comforts.
Pope Francis has not yet commented publicly on the row, but he did summon Bishop Tebartz-van Elst to Rome to discuss the matter.
After flying to the Italian capital from Germany, the bishop had to wait what must have been a distinctly uncomfortable eight days until he was finally granted an audience with the pope.
The meeting took place on Monday, but precious few details were released by the Vatican or the Catholic Church in Germany about its outcome – though the bishop's expulsion does suggest its tenor.
The diocese of Limburg issued a brief statement in which it said that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was "grateful for the very heartening meeting."
The statement added: "He and the pope agreed the tenor and contents of their meeting would remain confidential."
A special commission has been set up by the Catholic Church in Germany to investigate the building of the residence.
“The commission is made up of experts from both within and outside the church and it is checking the finances of the diocese,” says Matthias Kopp, a spokesman for the German conference of bishops. “There is no time schedule and I cannot tell you when it will make its report.”
Asked whether the scandal had damaged the reputation and image of the Catholic Church in Germany, Mr. Kopp answers: “No comment.”
There will be consequences
Robert Zollitsch, the head of the conference of bishops, said last week that there would be “consequences” over the affair, a prediction which has apparently been born out.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has denied any wrongdoing but has apologized for any "carelessness or misjudgment on my part."
He has defended the scale of the complex by pointing out that it involves several buildings, most of which are not for his own use.
The row over the alleged squandering of church money is not the only problem dogging Bishop Tebartz-van Elst.
Earlier this month, prosecutors in Hamburg asked a court to fine him for lying in a row with Der Spiegel over whether he took a first-class fight to India to visit slums in the city of Bangalore.
The controversy surrounding the bishop has led to large numbers of Catholics formally leaving the church in Germany, which like the church in the United States, Ireland, and Australia has been hard hit by pedophile scandals.
Last year, around 300 Catholics officially deregistered themselves in Limburg, while up to 30 a day have left in recent weeks.
"I've never seen such a wave" of people quitting the faith, Ruediger Eschoffen, an official in charge of church registrations in Limburg, was quoted as telling the newspaper Frankfurter Neue Presse.