The 'Luxury Bishop', the bath, and the €31m palace: Free-spending German cleric summoned to Vatican


Michael Day
Monday 14 October 2013 18:07 BST
The refurbished residence of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst in Limburg, Germany
The refurbished residence of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst in Limburg, Germany (EPA; Getty Images)

As a concession to belt-tightening, the decision by a sybaritic German bishop to take a budget airline flight to Rome, is looking like too little, too late.

The general opinion among Catholic officials and the flock of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is that rather than fly cattle class last weekend, the priest should have thought about his expenditure several years ago.

This might have stopped him spending €350,000 (£300,000) on walk-in wardrobes for his palatial home in the ancient town of Limburg near Frankfurt. It is this lavish expenditure that the man – known by locals as “the Luxury Bishop of Limburg” or simply the “Swanky Bishop” – came to the Vatican to answer for yesterday.

Limburg diocese officials have confirmed that last summer he spent €31m renovating his residence – more than double the original €13.5m estimate. Some reports suggest the total figure might be €40m.

As in the scandal of British MPs and their scurrilous expense claims, it’s the piquant details that have got tongues wagging and warranted a summons to the Vatican. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst thought it was appropriate to have the Church spend €15,000 on a bath, for instance.

Germany’s 24 million registered Catholics make a compulsory contribution to the Church from their income tax. And some of them, angered by the diocese’s decadence, staged protests outside the bishop’s expansive residence. One churchgoer told the German DW news agency: “I am praying for our Bishop to be healed of his egomania.”

In a press conference last Thursday, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, admitted: “I am as surprised as you are [by the costs]. I am sure that the bishop is dealing with this thoroughly and with the necessary self-criticism. Next week, I will speak to the Holy Father in Rome about it,”

The Vatican is reported to be looking at case of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst during his visit.

There have already been calls for the resignation of the 53-year-old who was appointed to the Limburg diocese by fellow German Pope Benedict in 2008, as a rising young conservative theologian. According to Church law only the Pope has the authority to remove a bishop, who cannot normally resign or be dismissed.

But who’s to say that Benedict’s very different successor, Francis, the famously frugal Argentine pontiff, won’t make an example of the German spendthrift. Francis who has repeatedly called for a back-to-basics Church probably takes a very dim view of such lavish spending.

Minutes after his historic election in March this year, he symbolically shunned the traditional papal red cape trimmed with ermine that his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI like to wear on ceremonial occasions. “No thank you, Monsignor,” Pope Francis is reported to have said. “You put it on instead. Carnival time is over.”

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has played down his spending and insisted the renovations and refurbishments were all standard.

He told Germany’s Bild newspaper: “I understand that people are taken aback by the figure. But there are 10 separate building projects involved. People who know me know that I don’t need a pompous lifestyle.”

Domestic costs are not the only cloud hovering over the Luxury Bishop, however. He is also facing claims that he lied about the cost of a flight to India.

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