Pope Francis II has pulled some surprises out of his bejewelled mitre during his first seven months as pope. Today's announcement that he suspended Germany's "Bishop of Bling," Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, has Germans wondering whether the bishop is being gently removed from his post, or tucked away just long enough for the media glare to fade.
The bishop was found to have laid out $42 million to expand and customize his diocesan residence in Limburg, Germany, overspending estimates by around $34 million and allegedly lying to conceal the costs.The Frankfurter Allgemeine reports that a Hamburg prosecutor has also charged him with signing a false affidavit about taking a first-class flight to India.
Pope Francis assured the public that he had been "comprehensively and objectively informed" of these charges. Last Friday a committee chaired by Archbishop Robert Zolltisch began an audit of the project's accounts, which could take several months.
"As we await the results of this audit and the confirmation of related responsibilities, the Holy See considers it advisable to grant [Tebartz van Elst] a period outside of the diocese," explained the Vatican.
But some members of the diocese are impatient to see him go. "This does not fully free our diocese," a member of the Limburg cathedral chapter told Der Spiegel.
And a senior member of the Catholic relief organization Caritas told the magazine, "The diocese has been driven entirely against Tebartz-van Elst. There's absolutely no future with him. Do they really know in Rome what happened here, or don't they want the truth?"
Der Speigel reports that Catholics in the Limburg Diocese are "disconcerted" by the pope's action, worrying that Tebartz-van Elst could be reinstated as early as Christmas.
But a columnist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine pointed out that suspending judgement is only fair, until the audit is complete. "A good employer does not fire his workers before that," writes Jörg Bremer.
Pope Francis has recalled Vicar General Wolfgang Rösch from a pilgrimage down the Santiago de Compostela trail to run the diocese in the interim. This choice, in particular, has made some question how definitive the suspension might be.
"Under normal circumstances, a vicar general serves as the right hand of a bishop, the second-in-command in a Catholic diocese," writes Berlin Morgenpost. "If he is now standing in for the boss, this is a similar arrangement to when a bishop is on sick leave, and will return to his post."
"Has the Vatican strengthened the controversial bishop or has it neutralized him?" asks the paper.
Suddeutsch Zeitung considers the bishop's ultimate removal inevitable. "It is hardly conceivable that Tebartz-van Elst will return to his heaven after this purgatory," writes the paper. "But the provisional decision has not snubbed him. It leaves space for a procedure in which the allegations against the bishop can be reviewed thoroughly. The papal decision doesn't endorse the bishop, his deceptions, nor his poor judgement. But it also does not kowtow to the critics who have been quick to declare a guilty verdict."
Meanwhile, the scandal has begun to chip away at Tebartz-van Elst's flock. "Last year, around 300 Catholics officially deregistered themselves in Limburg, while up to 30 a day have left in recent weeks" The Monitor reported yesterday.
German citizens pay a church tax when they register civilly as either Catholics or Protestants; as a result, the German Catholic Church is the wealthiest in Europe.