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Bling Bishop

Klaus Dahmann / aiMarch 26, 2014

Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Germany's Bishop of Limburg, the notorious 'bling bishop' who squandered millions in church funds on an extravagant residence. DW looks back at the case.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

What are the allegations?

As early as the beginning of 2012, Limburg Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst made headlines with a flight to India. He had said that he had flown there to support charity projects to help children in Bangalore, working in quarries. A noble cause, but "Spiegel" magazine soon found some interesting details about the trip: The bishop flew first class. "First class to the slums" was the headline the magazine ran. A trip to the tune of 7,000 euros ($9580), partly paid through bonus miles and the bishops private coffers.

In summer 2013, however, it was the details about the bishop's new residence in Limburg that got him into hot water. Instead of the initial 5.5 million euros, the price tag was rumored to be around 10 million. Several German media began to investigate and came to the conclusion that, in fact, the cost must be even higher than that.

Mass-circulation tabloid Bild revealed the pricelist of a number of special requests by the bishop: 15,000 euros for a freestanding bathtub, 100,000 for a chandelier advent wreath, 450,000 for art objects, 800,000 for a garden and 2.3 million for an atrium. , Tebartz-van Elst had only asked for a number of those things late in the construction process so that floors and ceilings that had already been finished had to be torn up again. By now, the cost was estimated to be around 31 million euros, though even this doesn't seem to be the final bill quite yet.

The Limburg Bishops' residence (photo: Thomas Frey/dpa)
The costs for the building project went from 5 million to more than 31 million eurosImage: picture-alliance/dpa

How did the Bishop react?

The Bishop took the "Spiegel" allegations about his flight to India to court, insisted he flew only business class. He later had to retract that and was ordered to pay a fine for giving false testimony under oath.

Tebartz-van Elst has made no concrete statements about the allegations concerning the cost of this residence. In August, he wrote an open letter to the communities in his diocese, saying that he now saw some of his earlier decisions in a different light, suggesting that he would do them differently in hindsight. A second letter announced for October was scrapped on short notice.

He then traveled to Rome, saying that the decision about his case would be in the hands of the Pope.

How did the people react?

After the media had uncovered the skyrocketing costs for the residence, leading Catholics from the Limburg diocese joined together in 2013. Their open letter was read out in the Frankfurt cathedral - and received loud and long applause.

"The head of the diocese imminently has to take a different path," the letter said. The crisis of confidence in the community was causing "great concern," and it was time "to name the things that went wrong and work towards changing them."

The more details came out, the louder the calls for his resignation - for instance from the largest lay organization, the Committee of German Catholics. President Alois Glück, early in October, said that "many in the Church expect a resignation." In the past weeks, the number of people leaving the Church went up.

Catholic aid organizations are also beginning to feel the pinch, especially the Caritas aid organization. A lot of donors said they would in future not give any more, explaining their frustration about the wastefulness of the Limburg bishop.

"Thou shalt not steal" (Foto: Thomas Frey/dpa)
Artist Oliver Bienkowski projected "Thou shalt not steal" on to the cathedral facade in LimburgImage: picture-alliance/dpa

How did the Catholic Church react?

In September 2013, the Vatican became active in the case. Pope Francis sent Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo to Limburg to see what was going on. Tebartz-van Elst agreed to have the building costs checked. Details about the visit, however, were not made available to the public.

Other German bishops stood behind their Limburg colleague for a long time. But, when public pressure grew, the German Bishops' Conference installed a commission to examine the costs - and there were a few critical voices.

The Chairman of the Bishops' Conference, Robert Zollitsch, spoke of a "massive credibility problem," and said that the entire Catholic Church in Germany was suffering from the consequences of the Limburg case. Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier was even more frank: The situation had escalated to an extent that Tebartz-van Elst could no longer work in Limburg, he said.

Zollitsch went to Rome to discuss the case with the Pope but did not disclose any details about the content of those talks.