Pope suspends German ‘bling bishop’ pending investigation

Expensive residence renvoation under investigation by German bishops

A file photo of the ensemble of the bishop’s residence in Limburg  earlier this month. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

A file photo of the ensemble of the bishop’s residence in Limburg earlier this month. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters


Pope Francis has suspended an embattled German bishop from his diocese, where he is under fire after spending €31 million on a new residence.

After a 20-minute audience on Monday, the Vatican said yesterday in a statement that it deemed it “appropriate” for Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst to take “a period of leave from the diocese”.

“A situation has been created in which the bishop can no longer exercise his episcopal duties”, said the statement. It was not clear yesterday if the bishop would remain in the Vatican or travel elsewhere during his suspension.

The absence of Dr Tebartz-van Elst (53) from Limburg will give time for a church investigation into the so-called “bishop of bling” affair.

For weeks, the German media has reported on the spiralling cost of the new official residence, from €5 million to at least six times that. Among the renovation costs: a €15,000 bath, a €25,000 conference table and a private chapel costing a reported €2.9 million.

The archdean of nearby Wiesbaden, Wolfgang Rösch, has been asked to step into the role until a final decision is made. Dr Rösch was not available for comment yesterday as he is reportedly walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Reading a statement in German yesterday, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said the pope had been “thoroughly and objectively informed about the situation in the diocese of Limburg at all times”.

Before receiving the bishop, Pope Francis met Cardinal Joachim Meisner of nearby Cologne and the head of the German episcopate, Archbishop of Freiburg Robert Zollitsch.

He reacted positive to yesterday’s news, saying it created an opportunity to “return to calm and find a new mode of discussion”. He said a commission established by the German Bishops Conference would work “swiftly and carefully” to investigate the case of the Limburg bishop’s residence.

News of the Vatican’s decision prompted a mixed reaction in Limburg, unused to scandal and the accompanying media attention. According to local television, twice the regular number of people queued outside a government office yesterday to sign papers leaving the Catholic church.

“Can a suspended bishop simply return in a few months to Limburg?” asked one unnamed church official in the Spiegel Online website. Another unnamed official with the local office of the church charity, Caritas, added: “The diocese has hit a wall with Tebartz-van Elst, there is no future with him.”

A conservative theologian who studied in France and the US, Dr Tebartz-van Elst was Germany’s youngest bishop when he was appointed by Pope Benedict in 2008. As well as the residence affair, he faces charges of making false statements under oath about first-class flights to India in a legal dispute with Der Spiegel magazine.

“Had the pope forced him to resign that would have been the same as a pre-emptive judgment,” said theologian Thomas Schüller to the DPA agency. However he, too, ruled out the bishop’s return to Limburg.