VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has asked a German bishop to take a temporary leave of absence while a commission looks into allegations of excessive spending in his diocese.
Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, of the Diocese of Limburg near Frankfurt, has been at the focus of allegations of approving an expensive remodeling and building project that included the bishop’s residence. According to some estimates, the total amount could be as much as $40 million.
Der Spiegel magazine described the new building as a “monstrous luxury complex,” but the publication erroneously reported that it was built “according to the wishes” of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, when, in fact, his predecessor, Bishop Franz Kamphaus, who retired in 2007, ordered the project.
A Vatican statement issued Oct. 23 said that Pope Francis, who received the bishop in private audience on Oct. 21, has been “continually informed in detail and objectively on the situation.” It added that “a situation has arisen” in which the bishop “cannot, at the present moment, continue to exercise his episcopal ministry.”
In September, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, sent Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, a former apostolic nuncio to Germany, on a “fraternal visit” (as opposed to an apostolic visitation, which would indicate the problems were more serious). The cardinal, diocesan leaders and Germany’s bishops’ conference agreed to the creation of a commission to carry out a detailed examination of the building project.
“Pending the results of this examination and of an analysis of responsibility for the matter, the Holy See considers it appropriate to authorize a period of stay outside the diocese” for the bishop, the Oct. 23 statement said.
The statement confirmed that a new vicar general, Msgr. Wolfgang Rosch, would administer the diocese. The Vatican said he will undertake these duties “during the absence of the diocesan bishop, within the sphere of competence associated with this office.”
The Church in Germany is one of the wealthiest in the world, deriving much of its income from a statutory Church tax. During his visit to Germany in 2011, Benedict XVI called for a purification of the Church from its “excesses” and wealth and power in general. He questioned whether, behind the “superbly organized” structures, there was also “a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God.”
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, 53, has long been the focus of secular media attention, most notably soon after his appointment in 2008, when he criticized Islam and dismissed a local priest for blessing a same-sex union. Some local priests have criticized his leadership in homilies and public statements and drawn up a petition.
By contrast, his predecessor, Bishop Kamphaus, who served as bishop of Limburg from 1982 to 2007, sparked controversy in the early 2000s by refusing to comply with several request from Pope John Paul II to stop issuing certificates that opened the way for women to have abortions.
Under German law, a woman may have a legal abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, provided that she can present proof that she has first attended a counseling center, many of which are run by the Church.
In a pastoral letter dated Aug. 31, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst appealed to the diocese to examine the allegations themselves and invited all parish members to visit the diocesan center in Limburg and to meet him personally.
But he also admitted in general terms to harboring regrets. “Some of what has been said and written in the past few weeks has hurt me,” he wrote. “Other things have also caused me to think and have contributed to me seeing some decisions in a different light. Looking back, I would have done some things differently. It is true; even a bishop is not immune to doubts and must be able to bear criticism.”
Reports in the mainstream media appear to already convict the bishop, but that is clearly not how the Vatican or certain figures close to the case view it. Some observers have pointed out that the Vatican statement leaves room for interpretation and noted that Pope Francis has not explicitly barred the bishop from exercising his episcopal ministry.
“It’s clear that [Bishop] Tebartz-van Elst continues to be in office as bishop of Limburg,” Georg Bier, a canon lawyer, told the German Catholic news agency KNA Oct. 24. “[The Vatican statement] doesn’t say that he is currently not allowed to act as a bishop, just that he cannot currently exercise his episcopal ministry.” The Pope, Bier observed, could have ordered the bishop not to exercise his office until further notice or signified he would be keeping a close eye on him, but he did neither.
Meanwhile, a leading German theologian has expressed doubt about the allegations made against the bishop.
Speaking to the German channel WDR 2 Oct. 23, Manfred Lütz said the bathtub of the new residence cost 3,000 euros, not the reported 15,000 euros. He also said it was “unclear” whether a hanging Advent wreath cost 100,000 euros or who had originally ordered it, and he doubted the $40 million estimated total.
But whether the allegations are true or not, Lütz said one should withhold judgment until the results of the investigation are known.
The theologian, who is a consultant and member of two Vatican dicasteries, believes it is conceivable that the bishop has been cleared of wrongdoing but has not returned to the diocese because of the heated atmosphere there.
Lütz expressed regret that many had made a definite judgment about Bishop Tebartz-van Elst without being fully informed.
Commented Lütz, “We know too little.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.