After being kept waiting nearly one week for an appointment, German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst was able to meet with Pope Francis today at Vatican to explain his lavish use of church funds.
The Bishop of Limburg – now known as the Bishop of Bling — has spent some $42 million to renovate his official residence and is accused of falsifying expense reports.
The pope, who has used the Throne of St. Peter to preach for a “poor” church and has set the example by rejecting the opulence available to his position, released no statement following the meeting.
Pope Francis had been briefed last week by the head of the German Bishop’s conference. German press reports say the Vatican has asked Archbishop Robert Zollitsch to file an official report on the affair, speculating that the fate of Bishop Tebartz van Elst may only be decided after it is filed.
The bishop of Limburg admits using church funds to restore his residence but has defended his actions, saying the renovations of the church property involved 10 different buildings that had to be upgraded according to historical preservation laws. But the scandal has caused a great uproar in Germany, where a mandatory church tax for members brings in billions of dollars the German Catholic Church each year.
Christian Weisner, of the lay organization We Are the Church, said the bishop’s actions seriously damaged the reputation of the church.
“This is really a very, very sad story. After the sexual abuse scandal discovered three years ago this is a second bombshell. The whole Catholic Church has lost its credibility,” Weisner said.
The German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, reported that Tebartz-van Elst was unlikely to give up his job voluntarily over the criticism. He attended last week’s scheduled French-German Bishops meeting at the Vatican and met with the head of the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Ouellet’s position makes him one of the most influential members of the church hierarchy in dealing with personnel issues. Previously known to have given “complete confidence” in the young bishop, the German paper described their latest meeting as “less merciful.”
The Frankfurt weekly also reported that the pope’s astonished response when told by Archbishop Zolltisch that the final costs of the renovations may hit $55 million. “Excuse me?” he is reported to have exclaimed.
Three years ago, Tebartz-van Elst started construction for a new residence next to the cathedral. The initial estimate was around $7.5 million. But as he added details like a $20,000 bathtub and marble floors the price tag quickly rose.
Tebartz-van Elst is also under investigation for lying about first class travel to India last year for church meetings. In signed affidavits he insisted that it was in business class after being confronted by the media. German prosecutors have indicted him for perjury.
Germany is the home to Martin Luther who famously tacked his list of reforms to the door of the church centuries ago to demand changes before leading a breakaway movement from the Vatican. The church leaders both in Germany and in the Vatican will have taken note that angry German faithful protesting in front the bishop’s home this past week have tacked their own list of complaint to the door of their cathedral as well.