Vatican suspends German bishop faulted for luxury spending

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BERLIN -- Pope Francis, who has made humility and modesty his hallmark, sent a swift and clear message to Roman Catholics around the world Wednesday that he wants all representatives of the church to do the same. He suspended a German bishop accused of spending millions on lavish renovations to his residence, and forced the chief administrator of the bishop's diocese into early retirement.

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, was reported to have allowed costs for his residence and other church buildings to run to more than $41 million. The project drew ridicule in the German news media for luxuries such as a $20,000 bathtub, a $1.1 million landscaped garden and plans for an 800-square-foot fitness room -- as well as a cross to be suspended from the ceiling of a personal chapel that necessitated the opening of a renovated roof.

The pope acted just two days after receiving the bishop in Rome, where he was summoned to explain himself. The Vatican issued a statement saying the pope had been "comprehensively and objectively" informed about what was going on in the diocese, and that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst "currently cannot exercise his office."

It added that the Holy See considered it "advisable" for the bishop to spend an unspecified time away from Limburg. His duties will be assumed by a deacon, Wolfgang Rösch, who was already scheduled to become the diocese's chief administrator at year's end. The current chief, Franz Kaspar, 75, a confidante of the bishop, will retire immediately, 2 1/2 months early, the Vatican said.

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst's lifestyle and stern manner had been a cause of despair for months among many German Catholics. The pontiff's decision to suspend him suggested that Pope Francis will enforce his values across the church hierarchy. The pope has chosen to live in a spartan guesthouse in the Vatican, rather than the opulent apartments his predecessors used, and he has said bishops should not live "like princes."

"His decision signals that the pope deems pastoral life and moral examples important, not an accessory," said Vatican historian Alberto Melloni, director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, a liberal Catholic research institute in Bologna, Italy. The pope is signaling that living the right kind of humble life "is more important than managing the Curia in a more efficient way," he said, referring to the Vatican bureaucracy.

"It pertains to the reform of the church, not just of the Curia," Mr. Melloni added. "A manager could have reformed or re-engineered the Curia, but the conclave chose a man who distinguishes himself for his human values. It's the difference between the head of police and the mayor."

Commentators noted that Pope Francis' immediate predecessor, the German-born Benedict XVI, removed several bishops for various reasons. In 2012, for instance, the bishop of the Sicilian dioceses of Trapani was removed in the wake of a financial administrative scandal. But Pope John Paul II did not take any public action when a U.S. bishop, William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., drew wide criticism for a luxurious residential suite he had built for himself in 2002, displacing six nuns from a convent building.

The Limburg scandal first reached the Vatican in August, and a cardinal, Giovanni Lajolo, was dispatched to look into it. As a result, the German Bishops Conference appointed a commission to investigate the spending affair, amid conflicting reports over the chain of responsibility for approving the project's expense and about how much blame rested with the bishop.

The spending prompted outrage among the 682,000 Roman Catholics in the Limburg diocese, which includes much of the rural Rhineland as well as Frankfurt, Germany's financial center. It has also led to renewed questions about church wealth in Germany, the country of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

Pope Francis has made simplicity an emblem of his papacy. He chose the name of the medieval saint known in Italy as the "poverello" (the poor man).

German church experts said the bishop would probably never return to his post, even though the Vatican presented his suspension as temporary. "Had he directly forced the bishop to step down or removed him from office, that would have been swiftly condemned," University of Münster theologian Thomas Schüller told the German news agency DPA.

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst became Germany's youngest bishop when he was installed by Pope Benedict in January 2008. He was ordained a priest in 1985 and studied in France and at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in the late 1980s. His leadership style as bishop created dissent in his diocese, and several thousand congregants had already signed a petition asking for his removal before the spending scandal broke.

The bishop has said in his defense that the reported spending on remodeling in Limburg covered 10 individual projects, some of them involving buildings governed by landmark preservation laws that drove up costs, and that his private quarters were a relatively small part of the work.


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