Pope Francis temporarily expelled a German bishop from his diocese on Wednesday because of a scandal over a 31-million-euro project to build a new residence complex, but refused calls to remove him permanently.
The Vatican didn’t say how long Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst would spend away from the diocese of Limburg and gave no information on where he would go or what he would do. It said he was leaving pending the outcome of a church commission investigation into the expenditures and his role in the affair.
Limburg’s vicar general, the Rev. Wolfgang Roesch, who had been due to take up his duties on Jan. 1, will instead start work immediately and will run the diocese during Tebartz-van Elst’s absence, the Vatican said.
At the center of the controversy is the 31-million-euro ($42 million) price tag for the construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst has defended the expenditures, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and that there were additional costs because of regulations on buildings under historical protection.
But in a country where Martin Luther launched the Reformation five centuries ago in response to what he said were excesses and abuses within the church, the outcry has been enormous. The perceived lack of financial transparency has also struck a chord since a church tax in Germany brings in billions of euros a year to the German church.
The head of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has been particularly blunt in his criticism of the expenditures and the credibility problem it was causing the church.
Zollitsch has said the church commission will investigate the costs of the renovation, the financing and how decisions about the restoration evolved. Canon lawyers are to determine if Tebartz-van Elst violated church law regarding the use of church money, Zollitsch said in Rome after meeting with Francis last week.
In a statement Wednesday, Zollitsch didn’t elaborate on Tebartz-van Elst’s future or the length of his time-out but pledged that the commission would do its work “quickly and carefully.”
Francis’ decision opens “a space to return to inner calm and create a new basis for talks,” he said.
The Vatican stressed that Francis took the decision based on “objective” information, suggesting that the Vatican wasn’t being swayed by the popular outcry over the scandal. At the same time, though, Francis has made clear he expects his bishops to live simply, setting as an example his own humble lifestyle.
He has said he wants his church “poor and for the poor” and has urged his priests to shun fancy cars for modest ones.
Tebartz-van Elst met with Francis on Monday.
Germany’s main lay Catholic group, the Central Committee of German Catholics, praised the decision as creating “the necessary space to clear up completely and firmly the events in Limburg,” said the group’s head Alois Glueck.
“Pope Francis’ decision offers the chance of a first step toward a new beginning in the Limburg diocese, because the situation had become an increasing burden for the faithful there and in all of Germany over recent weeks,” Glueck said.
The German government, which last week called the situation “very difficult” and said it hoped for a solution that would give confidence to the faithful, refused to comment Wednesday on the Vatican’s decision, saying it was a church matter.
Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrueck, said the pope had made a “smart” decision which gives all concerned time to review the situation calmly. But in comments to the German newspaper Die Welt, he cast doubt on Tebartz-van Elst returning to Limburg in the future.
“I continue to think that the bishop returning to the Limburg diocese and a new beginning there with Tebartz-van Elst are very difficult,” Bode was quoted as saying. “There is a fundamental crisis of confidence in Limburg. The situation there is a mess.”
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