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Catholic Church

Free-spending bishop expelled from diocese

Pope Francis takes action against German cleric caught up in scandal over €31 million residence

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 5:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 October, 2013, 12:53pm

Pope Francis temporarily expelled a German bishop from his diocese yesterday because of a scandal over a €31 million (HK$330 million) project to build a new residence complex, but he refused 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 he was leaving pending the outcome of a church commission investigation into the expenditures and his role in the affair.

Limburg's vicar general, the Reverend Wolfgang Roesch, who had been due to take up his duties on January 1, would instead start work immediately and run the diocese during Tebartz-van Elst's absence, the Vatican said.

At the centre of the controversy is the €31 million price tag for the construction of a new bishop's residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst has defended the expenditures, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and that there were additional costs because of regulations on historic buildings.

But in a country where Martin Luther launched the Reformation five centuries ago in response to what he said were excesses and abuses within the church, the outcry has been enormous. The perceived lack of financial transparency has also struck a chord, since a church tax in the country brings in billions of euros a year to the German church.

The head of the German bishops' conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has been particularly blunt in his criticism of the expenditures and the credibility problem it was causing the church.

Zollitsch has said the church commission would investigate the renovation.

In a statement yesterday, Zollitsch did not elaborate on Tebartz-van Elst's future or the length of his time-out but pledged that the commission would do its work "quickly and carefully".

The Pope's decision opens "a space to return to inner calm and create a new basis for talks".

The Vatican stressed that the Pope took the decision based on "objective" information, suggesting that the Vatican was not being swayed by the popular outcry over the scandal. At the same time, though, the pontiff has made clear he expects his bishops to live simply, setting as an example his own humble lifestyle.

He has said he wants his church "poor and for the poor" and has urged his priests to shun fancy cars for modest ones.

Tebartz-van Elst met with Pope Francis on Monday.

Germany's main lay Catholic group, the Central Committee of German Catholics, praised the decision as creating "the necessary space to clear up completely and firmly the events in Limburg", said the group's head, Alois Glueck.

Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrueck, said the Pope had made a "smart" decision which gave all concerned time to review the situation calmly. But in comments to the German newspaper Die Welt, he cast doubt on Tebartz-van Elst returning to Limburg in the future.

"There is a fundamental crisis of confidence in Limburg," he was quoted as saying. "The situation there is a mess."