FRANKFURT, Germany –Pope Francis has put German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst on leave pending an audit of a $43 million project for a new residence in the diocese of Limburg that prompted outrage.
The pontiff advised Tebartz-van Elst, whose Roman Catholic diocese includes the German financial capital of Frankfurt, to take a leave of absence until the audit has been completed, the Vatican said in a statement Wednesday. The Rev. Wolfgang Roesch, who had been scheduled to become general vicar of the diocese in January, takes that post immediately and will assume the bishop’s responsibilities, it said.
The situation in Limburg “is such that Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst can’t execute his duties at the present time,” the Vatican said. Pending the audit, “the Holy See deems it appropriate to allow the bishop time away from the diocese.”
Churchgoers demonstrated publicly this month to protest the expenditure, which contrasts with the frugal lifestyle espoused by the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics since his election in March. The controversy throws a spotlight on the finances of the church in Germany, which is regarded as the richest in the world.
Under an arrangement that became nationwide in the Weimar Republic in 1919, Germany’s Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, Jewish congregations and some other religious groups receive financing through taxes on members assessed through their local municipalities. The Catholic church’s income from the tax totals about 5 billion euros a year.
Tebartz-van Elst, 53, met Pope Francis on Oct. 21 at the Vatican following a briefing of the pontiff by Bishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops’ Conference.
The cost of new construction and renovation of the building complex in Limburg that includes Tebartz-van Elst’s residence ballooned, according to a diocese auditing committee’s statement on Oct. 7, compared with initial estimates of about 5.5 million euros. The diocese of Limburg’s total income for 2012 was 200 million euros, according to an Aug. 31 statement on its website.
The construction project prompted Bild Zeitung, Germany’s most-read newspaper, to label the cleric “the pomp bishop.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, in comments relayed by her spokesman Steffen Seibert on Oct. 14, said the situation has become “an enormous burden” for the church.
“They’re obviously seeking a solution in the Vatican,” she said. “I can express the hope that it will be a solution for the faithful, for people’s trust in the church.”
Pope Francis, 76, the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years, has spoken out in favor of the world’s poor, choosing the name of a 13th-century Italian saint from Assisi famous for his pledge of poverty and humility.
He has also called on members of the Catholic clergy to avoid ostentatiousness and shun modern trappings, saying “it hurts me to see a priest or a nun in the newest car models; even if you like it, think of all the children who are dying of hunger.”
Tebartz-van Elst was inaugurated bishop of Limburg in January 2008. He was ordained in the northern German town of Muenster in 1985.