Lavish spending forces German bishop to seek audience with pope
Limburg renovation included a reported €15,000 spent on a bath
Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst’s residence and his private chapel (second right) in Limburg. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters.
Pope Francis took office in March urging the Catholic church to “be poor for the poor”. Now the Bishop of Rome’s new philosophy is to be tested in a very public way with the first prickly problem of his papacy: German bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst.
The 53-year-old is under pressure to resign after overseeing a renovation of his official residential complex in Limburg, near Frankfurt, in which costs jumped fivefold to about €31 million.
Now the future of the man dubbed the “luxury bishop of Limburg” hangs in the balance after Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops’ Conference, arrived in the Vatican yesterday to discuss the matter with the pope.
Archbishop Zollitsch is furious at the reported extravagance of the Limburg residence project: a reported €15,000 spent on a bath, €480,000 for art and almost €800,000 for the gardens.
“We have a tremendous credibility problem . . . and the church in Germany is being damaged,” said Archbishop Zollitsch in unusually outspoken language.
“I am sure that the Bishop of Limburg will deal with this situation with the necessary level of self-criticism.”
On Sunday, rather than wait for news of his fate, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst took matters into his own hands and flew – unannounced – to Rome where he is now reportedly waiting for an audience with the pope.
“He flew with the low-cost airline Ryanair to Rome,” sniffed the Bild tabloid yesterday. “That’s a start.”
The Limburg bishop, a conservative theologian appointed last year, has denied any wrongdoing and says he has been the victim of a media campaign. “I understand that people are taken aback by the figures,” he said. “But people who know me know that I don’t need a pompous lifestyle.”
As well as the cost overrun affair, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst faces claims of giving false testimony under oath, disputing that he admitted taking a business class flight to India.
After weeks of negative headlines, Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped into the row yesterday, letting it be known through her spokesman that she expected a swift end to the church drama.
On Sunday, locals in Limburg held a public protest calling for the resignation of the bishop who presides over some 650,000 Catholics.
The Limburg affair has revived questions about the finances – and oversight – of Germany’s Catholic Church.
The church took in some €5 billion last year through an obligatory church tax on all Catholics.