Vatican Suspends German Bishop Accused of Lavish Spending on Himself
Pope Francis, who has made humility and modesty his hallmarks, sent a swift and clear message to Roman Catholics around the world on Wednesday, suspending a German bishop accused of spending millions on lavish renovations to his residence and forcing the chief administrator of the bishop’s diocese into early retirement.
The bishop, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, 53, of Limburg, was said to have let the cost of renovating his residence and other church buildings balloon to more than $41 million. The projects drew ridicule in the German news media for luxuries like 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, which necessitated the reopening of a renovated roof.
The pope acted just two days after receiving Bishop Tebartz-van Elst in Rome, where he was summoned to explain himself. The Vatican issued a statement saying that Francis had been “comprehensively and objectively” informed about the events in the diocese and that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst “currently cannot exercise his office.”
The statement said the Holy See thought 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 scheduled to become the diocese’s chief administrator at the end of the year. The current chief, Franz Kaspar, 75, a confidant of the bishop, will retire immediately, two and a half months early.
The pope’s decision lifted spirits among Germany’s Catholics and reinforced indications that he will enforce his values throughout the church hierarchy. Francis has chosen to live in a spartan guesthouse in the Vatican, rather than in the opulent apartments his predecessors used, and he has said that bishops should not live “like princes.”
“His decision signals that the pope deems pastoral life and moral examples important, not an accessory,” said Alberto Melloni, a Vatican historian and the director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, a liberal Catholic research institute in Bologna, Italy.
Francis is signaling that living the right kind of humble life “is more important than managing the Curia in a more efficient way,” Mr. Melloni said, referring to the Vatican bureaucracy.
“It pertains to the reform of the church, not just of the Curia,” he said. “A manager could have reformed or re-engineered the Curia, but the conclave chose a man who distinguishes himself for his human values.”
Commentators noted that Francis’s immediate predecessor, the German-born Benedict XVI, removed several bishops, some of whom were involved in financial scandals. But Pope John Paul II, who preceded Benedict, took no public action when Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., drew criticism for a luxurious residential suite he had built in 2002, displacing six nuns.
The Limburg scandal first reached the Vatican in August, and a cardinal, Giovanni Lajolo, was sent to look into it. The German Bishops’ Conference appointed a commission to investigate, amid conflicting reports on the chain of responsibility for approving expenses for the project and disagreement about how much blame rested with the bishop.
The spending prompted outrage among the 682,000 Roman Catholics in the diocese, which includes much of rural Rhineland as well as Frankfurt, Germany’s financial center. It has also led to renewed questions about church wealth in Germany, the home of the Reformation and a country where established religions are supported by taxes collected by the government.
Carlo Marroni, a Vatican expert at the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, said in a telephone interview that the pope was “intervening personally and swiftly on issues that worry his faithful.”
Francis has made simplicity an emblem of his papacy. He chose the name of the medieval saint known in Italy as the “poverello” (poor man), and he has said that along with St. Augustine, St. Francis is closest to his soul. In a recent trip to Assisi, where St. Francis lived, he called for sobriety and urged the church to strip itself of the sense of comfort.
The Catholic Church in Germany, as in many other countries, has grappled for years with declining membership and allegations of sexual abuse by priests, as well as many Catholics’ rejection of its more conservative stances on abortion, remarriage after divorce and the role of women.
German church experts said Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was unlikely to 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,” Thomas Schüller, a theologian at the University of Münster, told the German news agency DPA.
If the bishop did return, trust might be hard to regain. “He never had a good connection with people,” a local journalist, Joachim Heidersdorf of Nassauische Neue Presse, said in an e-mail. “His predecessor regularly walked around Limburg; Tebartz-van Elst had himself driven, even for short distances. In his sermons, too, he just reached the heads, but never the hearts, of the people.”
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst became Germany’s youngest bishop when he was installed by Benedict in January 2008. He was ordained in 1985 and studied in France and at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His leadership style 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 covered 10 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.