NPR Story
4:17 pm
Wed October 23, 2013

German 'Bishop Of Bling' Booted From Office Over Lavish Spending

Originally published on Wed October 23, 2013 5:43 pm

Transcript

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The Vatican today suspended a German bishop who's embroiled in a scandal over lavish renovations to his residence near Frankfurt. He's also facing perjury charges for lying about having flown first class to India on church-related business. The scandal has shaken Germany's Catholics who fund the church with part of their income taxes collected by the state. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Bettina(ph) (unintelligible) packs new books at this Catholic bookstore in Berlin opened by her grandfather nine decades ago. She is one of the many German Catholics rattled by revelations that the Bishop of Limburg spent $43 million of church money to renovate his new residence and office complex.

BETTINA: (Through interpreter) What the bishop did is simply not right. Many people say that the Catholic Church is stuck in the Middle Ages and spending like this only bolsters their beliefs.

NELSON: The Reverend Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is reported to have spent nearly $4 million on fixing up his palatial apartment in the picturesque German town of Limburg. German media report that his new bathtub cost $20,000. Another 1 million was spent to spruce up the garden. The bishop has defended his spending on what he says were 10 separate building projects with costs driven up because of historic building regulations.

MICHAEL FRIELINGHAUS: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: In an interview with the German public television network CDF, his architect, Michael Frielinghaus, dismissed claims that the Limburg project being ostentatious. He said a more accurate way to describe the work is high quality. That's not how many of his parishioners see it. Scores of them formerly left the church after the scandal broke earlier this month. The 53-year-old bishop offered no immediate comment after being sidelined by the Vatican following his meeting with the Pope on Monday.

How long Tebartz-van Elts will be suspended is unclear, but few here believe he'll return to the Limburg diocese or any other in Germany. The Vatican says it is awaiting the outcome of a church investigation into his spending practices before reaching a final decision. Lay leaders in the Limburg diocese held a press conference today to try and appease public anger.

GUENTHER GEIS: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Guenther Geis, who is the dean of the cathedral chapter, said it will be hard to overcome people's broken trust. He called for prayers for the new vicar from neighboring Vis Baden who will take over in Limburg in the interim. But Christian Weisner of We Are Church, a grassroots organization seeking reforms, says it will take more than prayers to restore German Catholics' trust.

CHRISTIAN WEISNER: (Through translator) We need 100 percent transparency. And we parishioners need to have much more to say in how church money is spent. This money isn't the bishop's private stash, but it will take many years to get all the churches' finances out into the open.

NELSON: Weisner adds that there also hasn't been much sign of German church leaders responding to the Pope's call to lead more simple and frugal lives.

WEISNER: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Weisner says German bishops still earn upwards of $11,000 a month and drive high-end cars like Audis, BMWs or Mercedes. Back in Berlin, bookstore owner (unintelligible) says that church officials should learn from the Bishop of Limburg's mistakes.

BETTINA: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Berlin's cardinal rides a bicycle, she says. Why don't more of the Catholic clergy behave like that? Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.