Pope authorizes leave of absence for German ‘luxury bishop’

Categories: Nation/World

Oct. 25, 2013, edition
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

Pope Francis has authorized a leave of absence for a German bishop at the center of controversy over expenditures for his residence and diocesan center.

“A situation has been created in which Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst currently cannot exercise his episcopal ministry,” said a statement Oct. 23 from the Vatican press office.

Pope Francis, after being “continually, broadly and objectively informed” about the situation in the Diocese of Limburg, has authorized “a period of leave outside the diocese,” effective immediately, the statement said.

The bishop has been at the center of controversy for months over the remodeling and building project in Limburg, which is estimated to have cost about $40 million. German media have dubbed Bishop Tebartz-van Elst the “luxury bishop.”

Pope Francis discussed the situation Oct. 17 with Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the German bishops’ conference, and with Bishop Tebartz-van Elst himself Oct. 21.

In early September, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, sent retired Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo to visit the diocese to promote peace between the bishop and some of the diocese’s priests concerned about the project.

After the cardinal’s visit, the bishop agreed to publish figures about the construction project and cooperate with a commission established by the bishops’ conference to audit the project and examine how decisions were made. In most cases, church law requires consultation with a diocesan finance council before large sums of diocesan money can be spent.

The Vatican said Oct. 23 that Bishop Tebartz-van Elst would remain outside the diocese until the results of the audit and “the connected verification of responsibility in the matter” were known.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the Gernan bishops’ conference president and recently retired archbishop of Freiburg, had told reporters that he expected the bishop to do some serious “self-examination.”

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has been accused of living extravagantly while cutting diocesan programs, and critics have suggested that the renovation and construction project may have been funded in an improper way.

The investigating commission, Archbishop Zollitsch said, includes experts in canon law, finance and construction. The members were asked to “clarify the costs” of the project, “how it was financed” and “how decisions were made to finance it.” Regarding a separate allegation involving alleged luxury, a state prosecutor in Hamburg issued an indictment against Bishop Tebartz-van Elst claiming he had given false testimony in court. The bishop had sued the magazine Der Spiegel for an article alleging he had flown first class on a trip to India for charity work.