A German bishop at the center of intense media controversy for allegedly living a luxurious lifestyle will take a leave of absence from his diocese until the truth can be determined, Vatican officials have said.
The Holy See Press Office said Oct. 23 that “a situation has arisen in which” Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg “cannot, at the present moment, continue to exercise his episcopal ministry.”
Media reports have claimed the bishop approved spending more than $42 million on renovating his residence, ten times the original estimate.
A commission constituted by the German bishops’ conference will carry out a “detailed examination” of the construction of the bishop’s official residence, according to the Holy See.
“Pending the results of this examination and of an analysis of responsibility for the matter, the Holy See considers it appropriate to authorize for Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst a period of stay outside the diocese.”
The bishop’s family has received death threats daily, ABC News reports.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has also come under criticism for flying first-class from India after visiting the poor there. A Hamburg prosecutor has charged that the bishop submitted false affidavits on the matter during a legal dispute between the bishop and the news magazine Der Spiegel.
The allegations are particularly controversial in Germany, where the Church receives significant taxpayer funding from citizens officially registered as Catholics.
However, the allegations are contested and their veracity will be investigated.
The bishop’s defenders say the home on the residence property was in fact ordered to be built by his predecessor. The bishop himself has said that the cost overrun on the ten-building property includes spending on needed work for the sake of historic preservation.
And the diocese reportedly had only paid for a business class seat for the bishop’s flight home from India, but he was upgraded to first class because of flight miles accumulated by his vicar general.
The Bishop of Limburg has come under heavy fire in the press, with some reports characterizing him as the “bishop of bling.”
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst met with Pope Francis to discuss his situation Oct. 21. The Vatican press office said the Pope has been “continually informed in detail and objectively” on the situation.
Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg has supported the Limburg bishop, describing him as “a modest man” who has his “full support.”
“It is a very complicated story and I have heard that the house has been opened now and everyone that sees the house asks themselves why a big circus and theater has been made out of this,” Bishop Voderholzer told CNA in September.
The Regensburg bishop suggested there are “other reasons” for the controversy, alluding to “forces at work.”
It is believed the relatively young bishop – only 53 years of age – is cleaning house in his diocese after its former leader, Bishop Franz Kamphaus, caused controversies with Rome.
For years, Bishop Kamphaus had continued to allow church centers to provide counseling to women wanting to have an abortion, despite a papal order to end the practice. Abortion is technically illegal under German law, though the counselors provided the women with certificates that protect them from prosecution.
Bishop Kamphaus' practice raised concerns that the Church was unethically cooperating in the procurement of abortions and Pope John Paul II urged the practice to stop in a 1998 letter.
In the bishop’s absence, the Holy See has appointed Father Wolfgang Rosch to administrate the Diocese of Limburg. Fr. Rosch was scheduled to become the diocese’s vicar general Jan. 1, but took the position today, temporarily leading the diocese.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was ordained a priest for the Muenster diocese in 1985, and at the age of 44 was consecrated as an auxiliary bishop of the same diocese in 2003. He was installed as Bishop of Limburg in Jan., 2008.