German Outrage Swells Over a Bishop's Spending

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BERLIN -- Since being elected in March, Pope Francis has quickly made a mark with his displays of modesty, eschewing lavish papal apartments for a spartan guesthouse in Vatican City, wearing simple vestments, carrying his own bag and preaching against a Roman Catholic Church hierarchy that he said was overly insular and too often led by "narcissists."

Apparently, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, 53, the bishop of Limburg, Germany, for almost six years, is not on the same page as his new boss.

Roman Catholic bishops rarely serve as Page 1 tabloid fodder or top the national television ratings. But the prelate of Limburg earned this dubious distinction in 24 hours last week as outrage swelled after the news media reported the cost of the renovation of his residence, about $42 million, and a state prosecutor in Hamburg charged him with lying in a legal case.

The bishop ordered up a palatial living room, and his apartment alone cost $3.9 million, according to Jochen Riebel, the spokesman for the body administering church property in Limburg. Mr. Riebel said the bishop lied last summer when confronted over the cost, estimating the renovation at just $13.5 million.

Citing Mr. Riebel, the German news agency DPA itemized the work: $474,000 for carpentry and cupboards, $610,000 for art, $135,000 for windows for a private chapel, $34,000 for a conference table, $20,000 for a bathtub.

"For heaven's sake!" the headline atop the nation's largest-selling tabloid, Bild, screamed on Friday. Over a graphic that showed the bishop's living quarters and offices, it asked, "Why does the bishop need a 783,000-euro garden?"

By Friday, calls for the resignation of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst were multiplying.

The church exists to serve the weak, the sick and the poor, said Stefan Vesper, the leader of the country's biggest organization of Catholics and among those calling for resignation. The bishop's behavior "is not the Catholic Church," he said.

In September, as thousands of Catholics signed petitions for and against him, the bishop, whose diocese of 682,000 believers includes rural Rhineland but also Frankfurt, the banking metropolis, begged forgiveness from all whom he might have "hurt and disappointed."

After a visit from a Vatican envoy, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, who was sent to investigate the growing furor, the bishop agreed to have the German church investigate his spending, which he has insisted incorporated 10 separate building projects and was mandated by preservation laws.

On Friday, the bishop scrapped a planned trip to Israel with a church choir, but remained silent, behind the walls of the controversial residence.

"He will have to step down; there is no alternative," said Joachim Heidersdorf, chief reporter for Nassauische Neue Presse, a newspaper in Limburg, a picturesque small town whose cathedral dates from more than 800 years ago.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Heidersdorf marveled that the bishop, who he said communicates with just handpicked reporters, had chosen now to talk only with the influential Bild, which published his spirited defense on Thursday but went on the attack with Friday's front page. Television reports about the Limburg case attracted top ratings Thursday night.

For many commentators, the case in Hamburg hurt even more than the ballooning bills for the residence. A senior state prosecutor, Nana Frombach, formally charged on Thursday that the bishop made false statements twice under oath during his legal action against the weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which in 2012 reported that he flew first class on a visit to the poor in India.

If found guilty, the prelate could face a fine. Much worse than his spending, in the eyes of Claudia Keller, writing in a commentary on Friday for the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, is the formal charge that he lied and that "till today, he is sticking hard by that lie."

"That is not just embarrassing and a violation of the Eighth Commandment," she wrote. "It is the complete opposite of the life that Pope Francis imagines for his bishops."

By late Friday, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, who was appointed to Limburg by Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, a German, was clearly embarrassing even the cautious leaders of the roughly 24 million registered Catholics in Germany.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who said he was befuddled by the multimillions spent by the prelate when the figures emerged this week, said pointedly: "We bishops must ask ourselves, where and how we live. A new building represents a chance to send signals."

"Pope Francis is preaching to us all of the simple life, humility and modesty," the archbishop said, according to the newspaper Passauer Neue Presse. "We all feel how pressured the situation is," he added, noting that it was the first time he had heard of a prelate being formally charged by prosecutors. "That upsets me greatly. If it is confirmed in court, then we have a new situation."

The archbishop plans to be at the Vatican this week and said he would discuss the case with the pope. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was reported to be flying to Rome on Saturday. Canon law experts quoted by the German news media said that only the pontiff could decide to remove the bishop.

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, who was ordained in 1985 and studied in France and at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in the late 1980s, was Germany's youngest bishop when he was installed in January 2008.

His predecessor, Bishop Franz Kamphaus, had reached the church retirement age of 75, but was apparently a cleric more in the spirit of Francis. According to Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, a correspondent for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly in London, Bishop Kamphaus moved out of the bishop's palace into a small apartment in the adjoining seminary, using the official residence to house refugees.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 12, 2013 2:01 PM


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