German 'luxury bishop' flies to Rome for decision on his job

BERLIN Sun Oct 13, 2013 11:12am EDT

BERLIN (Reuters) - A German Catholic bishop under fire for huge cost overruns on a luxury residence and alleged lying under oath has flown to Rome to meet Vatican officials and possibly Pope Francis to decide if he can stay in office.

A spokesman confirmed on Sunday that Limburg Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst had departed but would not say when or how long he would be away. He declined to comment on media reports the prelate flew on a budget airline.

Tebartz-van Elst has caused a crisis in the German church for building a luxury residence and office complex at a time when the new pope is stressing humility and service to the poor.

"The bishop has made it clear that any decision about his service as a bishop lies in the hands of the Holy Father (Pope Francis)," said a statement issued by the diocese on Saturday.

"The bishop is saddened by the escalation of the current discussion. He sees and regrets that many believers are suffering under the current situation," it said.

FOCUS ON FRANCIS'S RESPONSE

An initial audit of his spending, ordered after a Vatican monitor visited Limburg last month, revealed the project cost at least 31 million euros, six times more than planned.

Tebartz-van Elst, whose baroque style was more in line with the conservative model of Roman Catholicism projected by retired Pope Benedict, has also been accused of lying under oath about a first-class flight to visit poverty programs in India.

The head of the German Church, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has said the scandal about the cost overruns and allegations of lying were hurting the whole church here and he would discuss it with Pope Francis during a visit to Rome this week.

The pope's response will be closely watched as a barometer of how far he will go to promote frugality and simplicity in a church plagued for decades by scandals of clerical sexual abuse and opaque financial transactions at the Vatican bank.

The Limburg case presents special problems because Tebartz-van Elst, at 53, is too young to simply be retired off as some bishops in abuse scandals have been. In the Catholic Church, a bishop retains his status even if he loses his office.

State prosecutors in Hamburg said last week they wanted the bishop to be fined for making false affidavits about the first-class flight to India while denying a report about it by the magazine Der Spiegel.

Tebartz-van Elst said he flew business class but the Hamburg-based weekly has made public a mobile phone video recording of a conversation which triggered action by prosecutors.

COSTS SET TO RISE?

The Welt am Sonntag newspaper said on Sunday the final price tag for the residence and office complex next to Limburg's hilltop Romanesque cathedral could run to as much as 40 million euros because of costs which were not in the earlier estimate.

The German bishops' conference, which set up a special commission to investigate Limburg's books, is due to issue a final report before the end of the year.

The "luxury bishop" story has become front-page news in Germany, deeply embarrassing a church enjoying an upswing thanks to Pope Francis's popularity after years of criticism for hiding sexual abuse cases among clergy.

Tebartz-van Elst, once considered a possible future cardinal, has angered many Catholic priests and lay people in Germany and become the butt of jokes in the media.

One satirical article in the daily Die Welt wrote that leading European luxury goods makers had stepped in as sponsors to help defray the cost of his stately residence.

The bishop, who has been openly accused of authoritarian and secretive management by his closest advisers, apologized after the Vatican monitor's visit last month for "any carelessness or misjudgment".

(Reporting by Oliver Denzer; writing by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Tom Heneghan)