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Hesse

Catholic Bishop of Limburg faces penalties

Amid calls for his resignation over a costly renovation, the Catholic Bishop of Limburg now faces penalties for lying under oath. In a row with the news magazine Der Spiegel, he has denied a first-class trip to India.

A Hamburg prosecutor has requested a penalty order against Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Catholic Bishop of Limburg, for having submitted two false affidavits to the Regional Court of Hamburg in September 2012.

The bishop made headlines for taking an alleged first-class flight to India, and has been in a legal dispute with leading news magazine Der Spiegel on the issue. Tebartz-van Elst issued a statement under oath denying that he was asked by the Spiegel journalist about the first-class trip, and that he had claimed to have flown business class, forcing Spiegel to print a retraction.

The publication has since said it stands by the story and filed a complaint with public prosecutors in its home city, Hamburg. Both the question and answer were recorded on a mobile-phone video that were published by Spiegel.

Building controversy

The bishop’s name has been plastered across German newspapers all week after his diocese announced revised costs of 31 million euros ($42 million) for his new residence and offices, next door to the celebrated Limburg Cathedral. The predicted figure stood at 5.5 million when construction began in 2010.

The Bishop of Limburg however broke his silence on the topic on Thursday in an interview with Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper.

"People are taken aback by the number, I understand that," Bishop Tebartz-van Elst told Bild. "But there are ten separate building projects involved. You need to consider lots of details, for instance the regulations governing the preservation of monuments."

Tebartz-van Elst also alluded to a special three-person panel he set up, saying this group had also been monitoring the costs since 2011. Prior to the bishop's interview in Bild, the members of the panel had said they were shocked at the revised figures, accusing Bishop Tebartz-van Elst of keeping them in the dark. Jochen Riebel, a former state cabinet minister in Hesse, was the most outspoken of the trio.

"The only way I can make sense of this for myself is that either the bishop is a very accomplished liar, or that he's somehow in poor health," Riebel told the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Wednesday.

What would Pope Francis think?

Other critics, including the German reform group "Wir sind Kirche" ("We are Church"), have said the rising costs and limited communication on the matter from Limburg's 53-year-old bishop stood in sharp contrast to Pope Francis' calls for Roman Catholicism to become less lavish and more open. One went so far as to call for a response from the Vatican.

"The bishop will presumably cling to his post, but there's another path here: the Pope could strip him of his office," Thomas Schüller, a church lawyer based in Münster, told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper.

Another objector, German light artist Oliver Bienkowski, on Tuesday projected a caricature of the bishop onto the facade of the cathedral with the German for "Thou shalt not steal" underneath.

Open letter promised

The latest figure of 31 million euros for the building project in Limburg shocked Germans all the more considering a September statement from the diocese's spokesman. Stefan Schnelle said at the time that the "figure of 20 million euros in some media reports has been plucked from thin air," suggesting instead that just over 10 million might be closer to the mark.

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst also criticized the tone of news reports on the subject in Thursday's interview with Bild, saying many people knew to take the reports with a pinch of salt.

"This weekend I want to directly address the believers in our diocese in an open letter and explain some things," Tebartz-van Elst said.

msh, hc/tj (AFP, dpa, epd, KNA)