Pope Francis sacks 'bling bishop' for luxury lifestyle

Mismanagement of church funds caused scandal and sparked calls for transparency — a reform aim of the new pope

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is under fire over an ostentatious building project, which includes a museum, conference halls, a chapel and private apartments.
Fredrik Von Erichsen/AFP/Getty Images

The Vatican on Wednesday indefinitely suspended a German cleric dubbed the "bling bishop," whose alleged luxury lifestyle runs counter to the message of modesty that Pope Francis aims to impart in the Catholic Church.

"The Holy See deems it appropriate to authorize a period of leave from the diocese for Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst," the Vatican said in a statement. "A situation has been created in which the bishop can no longer exercise his episcopal duties."

It did not specify how long the bishop would have to stay away but stated that this would depend on an analysis of the finances of his diocese in Limburg, in western Germany, and the responsibilities for its high costs.

The Central Committee of German Catholics, which brings together all the Catholic lay associations in the country, said it was satisfied with the decision to suspend the bishop.

"Pope Francis' decision offers a chance at a new beginning in the diocese of Limburg, where the situation has become heavy in recent weeks both for believers there and for the church in Germany as a whole," Alois Glueck, the organization's president, said.

The bishop flew to Rome last week on the low-cost airline Ryanair to explain himself to Francis, following accusations that he had bought an expensive ticket to travel to India and squandered money. His private quarters in a new diocesan building are reported to have cost some $3.9 million and included a 678-square-foot dining room and a $20,600 bathtub — using the revenue from a religious tax in Germany.

The reports have caused a scandal in Germany and sparked calls for greater transparency in Catholic Church finances, a reform aim of the new pope, who has called for a "poor church for the poor."

Francis has repeatedly spoken out against corruption in the church and has used his recent travels to make the defense of the poor a cornerstone of his papacy.

In July he traveled to Lampedusa, a small island off the Italian coast where more than 1,100 North African immigrants died two months later when a boat illegally carrying migrants capsized. He called on countries to welcome immigrants and not treat them as "pawns on the chessboard of humanity." It was his first trip outside Rome.

"A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization," he said.

Later that month, Francis preached street-level evangelism on a trip to Brazil to address more than a million Catholics on World Youth Day. He visited a favela in Rio de Janeiro in an effort to get his church closer to the people and increase its dwindling popularity.

"No amount of peace building will be able to last, nor will harmony and happiness be attained, in a society that ignores, pushes to the margins or excludes a part of itself," he said.


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Asked for a reaction after Wednesday's news, German government spokesman Georg Streiter said, "There is no comment from the German government. This is an internal matter for the church."

The 53-year-old bishop is under fire over the ostentatious building project, which includes a museum, conference halls, a chapel and private apartments, in the ancient town of Limburg. The project was approved by his predecessor and was initially valued at an estimated $7.5 million, but the final bill ballooned to $42 million, including a $1 million garden.

Tebartz-van Elst is accused of giving false statements in court about an expensive flight he took to India to visit poor communities. Prosecutors say the bishop gave false statements under oath in a Hamburg court battle against the newsweekly Der Spiegel about the flights.

Anger that taxes paid to the church by ordinary Germans are being squandered has led to demonstrations outside his residence.

"I can express the hope that there will be an answer for believers, for people's confidence in their church," German Chancellor Angela Merkel, daughter of a Protestant pastor, said earlier via her spokesman Steffen Seibert.

The embattled Tebartz-van Elst has defended the project, saying the centuries-old cathedral complex adjacent to the modernist new structure is heritage-protected, complicating the development.

Critics within and outside the church have contrasted the premium architectural project with the more humble style of Pope Francis and have asked how much good the money could do if used as aid in poverty-stricken African countries.

Pope Francis has made several gestures signaling a more humble style since coming to office in March and has condemned big-spending clerics.

The pontiff has refused to move into the lavish papal palace in the Vatican, staying instead in the Casa Santa Marta, a residence for visitors.

He has repeatedly called for the Catholic Church and its faithful to rid themselves of earthly concerns in the manner of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, warning that "worldliness is a murderer because it kills souls, kills people, kills the church."

Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

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