Bishop travels to Rome to explain €31m residence

A German bishop under fire for heavy spending is in Rome for talks at the Vatican, placing his future in the hands of a Pope who has espoused a simple lifestyle.

Bishop travels to Rome to explain €31m residence

Allegations of lavish spending by Rev Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, bishop of Limburg, have stirred controversy among Roman Catholics.

Martin Wind, a spokes- man for the diocese of Limburg, told the German news agency DPA Tebartz- van Elst was meeting with church officials in Rome but gave no further details. German media said he made the trip aboard a budget airline.

At the centre of the controversy is the €31m price tag for building a bishop’s residence complex and related renovations.

Tebartz-van Elst told the Bild newspaper the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because of regulations on buildings under historical protection.

Last week, Hamburg prosecutors asked a court to levy an unspecified fine against the bishop for false testimony in a case he filed against Der Spiegel magazine, which reported he had flown first class to India to visit poor children. The bishop insisted he had flown business class.

The accusations have touched a nerve in the country where Martin Luther launched the Reformation five centuries ago in response to what he said were excesses and abuses within the church.

Pope Francis himself has followed a modest lifestyle and encouraged church leaders to do the same.

In a statement, the Limburg diocese said the bishop was “concerned about the escalation of the current discussion” and regrets the suffering of “many of the faithful in the diocese and beyond” due to the situation.

German media say the controversy has split the 24m-member Catholic community at a time when the church is struggling with diminishing numbers of followers.

“It hurts me because of the impression that wasting money is a core feature of the Church,” Julia Kloeckner, deputy chairwoman of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, told the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel.

Pope Francis will have to decide if the bishop can stay in office.

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

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 and he would discuss it with Pope Francis during his visit to Rome. 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 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 €40m.

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