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Religion

Pope deliberates on Limburg bishop's fate

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebarz-van Elst had an audience with Pope Francis Monday. The pope may be waiting for an audit of Limburg's financial situation before he makes a decision.

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst had to wait more than a week for his audience with the pope. And Francis wasn't the only boss in the room: Cologne's Archbishop Cardinal Joachim Meisner is also said to have taken part in the meeting. But despite the intense media interest, the Vatican was able to keep everything under wraps - journalists failed even to get a picture of "Bishop Bling."

Meanwhile the pressure from within the church - to say nothing of politicians and the media - has increased. But Tebartz-van Elst has rejected calls for his resignation. Newspapers speculated that he hoped to dodge some of the blame for the enormous cost overruns in his diocese center, in part by pinning the escalating costs on planning authorities. The building has cost at least 31 million euros, more than six times the original estimate.

Did the bishop act alone?

Aerial proto of Limburg diocese center
(Thomas Frey/dpa)

The diocese center in Limburg

And the Vatican may well have known about the potential costs of the building from the beginning. According to the minutes of a meeting obtained by the German Catholic News Agency (KNA), Jean-Claude Perisset, the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Germany gave the go-ahead to the building project.

Transactions of the Catholic Church exceeding five million euros need to be approved by the pope himself. Media reports speculate, without evidence, that Tebartz-van Elst evaded this requirement. This could explain why the pope's intervention has come relatively late.

Insiders suspect the pope and Meisner told Tebartz-van Elst to step down voluntarily - something he clearly has no intention of doing. For a long time Meisner, who is responsible for the diocese of Limburg, protected Tebartz-van Elst. Meisner only changed his mind when Hamburg prosecutors filed charges against the bishop.

But a pope cannot simply fire a bishop. There need to be serious grounds for removal from office: either he is too ill to perform his duties or he has violated church law. So the Vatican would have to prove the latter. With a view to this, the German Bishops' Conference has spent the last few days examining Tebartz-van Elst's financial records.

Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst
(Boris Roessler/dpa)

The Bishop of Limburg has courted controversy in the past

The bishop in the media's crosshairs

In early 2012 the bishop made the headlines with a flight to India. After his return he said that he went to India to support social projects in Bangalore and to help children "who work in mines." But the newsmagazine "Der Spiegel" found out that Tebartz-van Elst had flown first class to India - "First class to the slums" read its headline.

The bishop took legal action against "Der Spiegel" for its report about his India trip. He claimed he had booked travel in business class - but the record suggested otherwise. Prosecutors charged him with making a false statement.

But his problems worsened when details about the price of the new building were first leaked to the public this summer. The cost had increased to 10 million euros instead of the originally estimated 5.5 million euros. German media probed the case and came to the conclusion that the true amount was even higher.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of Germany's bishop's conference
(REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay)

Robert Zollitsch: The scandal has damaged the Catholic Church in Germany

The top-selling tabloid "Bild" released the prices of some of the building's extravagances. These included 15,000 euros for a free-standing bathtub, 100,000 euros for a hanging Advent wreath, 450,000 euros for artworks, nearly 800,000 euros for landscaping and 2.3 million euros for an atrium.

Some of these were commissioned by Tebartz-van Elst so late that completed ceilings and floors had to be torn out again. The diocese estimated the cost at 31 million euros - a figure that may yet rise.

What does the pope say?

In August, prominent Catholics of the Diocese of Limburg came together in Frankfurt, its largest city. An open letter read out in Frankfurt Cathedral was met with applause. "The diocese immediately needs to change direction," it said.

The Central Committee of German Catholics called for Tebarz-van Elst's resignation. "Many people in the Church expect him to step down," Alois Glück, President of the Central Committee of German Catholics, said.

Others voted with their feet. Some 50 people in the Diocese of Limbug left the Catholic Church in two days.

Pope Francis
(TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

The fate of 'Bishop Bling' rests with the 'Pope for the Poor'

Catholic charities have been hit hard by the spending scandal, particularly the umbrella organization Caritas. According to the group's chief Peter Neher, several donors have announced they will cease giving because of the events in Limburg.

The final act

The Vatican intervened in the middle of September. Pope Francis sent Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo to Limburg for week to gather information. Tebartz-van Elst agreed to a review of the construction costs. But details of the visit were not made public.

For a long time the German bishops supported the Bishop of Limburg. As the public pressure on Tebartz-van Elst increased, they convened a commission to review the construction costs.

But critical voices became louder. The President of the Bishops' Conference, Robert Zollitsch, said that the credibility of the church had been "enormously" damaged.

In the middle of October, Tebartz-van Elst travelled to Rome and said on his parting that decisions about his future were "in the hands of the pope." Now that the pope has met the bishop, a decision cannot be far away.

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