Bishop’s Big Spending Stirs Outrage of Germans
By Alison Smale, NY Times, October 11, 2013
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 One tabloid fodder or top the national TV ratings. But the prelate of Limburg earned this dubious distinction in 24 hours this week as outrage swelled after the news media reported the cost—€31 million, or $42 million—of the renovation of his residence, 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, spokesman for the body administering church property in Limburg. Mr. Riebel said the bishop had lied last summer when confronted over cost, estimating the renovation at just $13.5 million.
Citing Mr. Riebel, the German news agency dpa itemized the work: €350,000 ($465,000) for carpentry and built-in cupboards; €450,000 ($610,000) for art; €100,000 ($136,000) for windows for a private chapel; €25,000 ($34,000) for a conference table; €15,000 ($20,000) for his 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 garden?"
By Friday, calls for the resignation of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst were multiplying almost as fast as the number of people formally quitting the Roman Catholic church.
The church exists to serve the weak, the sick and the poor, noted Stefan Vesper, leader of the country’s biggest organization of Catholics and among those calling for resignation. “That is not the Catholic Church,” he said.
Back 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 the banking metropolis of Frankfurt, begged forgiveness from all who 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 incorporates 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.
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 news weekly 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 on Friday for the daily Tagesspiegel, was the formal charge that he lied and that “till today, he is sticking hard by that lie.”
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, who said he was befuddled by the multimillions spent by his 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 told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper. "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 next week and said he would discuss the case with the pope. Canon law experts quoted by the German media said that only the pontiff could decide to remove the bishop.
The prelate, 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 installed in January 2008.
His predecessor, Bishop Franz Kamphaus, had reached the church retirement age of 75, but was apparently more a man in the spirit of Francis. According to Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, a correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet, Bishop Kamphaus moved out of the bishop’s palace into a small apartment in the adjoining seminary, using the official residence to house refugees.