Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis has formally accepted the resignation of Germany’s controversial bishop of Limburg, who had come under fire for his luxury lifestyle.
Franz-Peter Terbartz-van Elst, nicknamed the “bling bishop” by the international media, had been indefinitely relieved of his clerical duties by Francis last year after details emerged of his high-roller lifestyle, said the Vatican Wednesday.
The Roman Catholic bishop had faced outrage over an ostentatious building project at his official residence, which included a museum, conference halls, a chapel and private apartments, in the ancient town of Limburg in central Hesse state.
The project was initially valued at 5.5 million euros ($7.5 million) but the cost ballooned to 31 million euros, including a 783,000 euro garden and a 15,000 euro bathtub — all using the revenue from a religious tax in Germany.
Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, welcomed “a decision which draws to a close a period of uncertainty for the Limburg diocese and makes a fresh start possible.”
The cardinal called for “greater transparency” in Catholic Church finances in the wake of the scandal, in order to “increase the credibility of our Church” — echoing calls made by the new pope, who has called for a “poor Church for the poor”.
Tebartz-van Elst, 53, had also come under fire for lying under oath about flying first class to visit slum dwellers in India.
He had told a journalist with the Hamburg-based news weekly Der Spiegel that “we flew business class”, but then in sworn testimony denied having said those words.
However, the reporter had videotaped him making the comment, and the embattled bishop settled the court case with a 20,000 euro payment in November.
Joshua McElwee, Vatican expert for the National Catholic Reporter, said the resignation “puts into the spotlight the extraordinary power of any pope to remake the global church as he sees fit”.
“It also highlights anew differences of opinion among the highest prelates of the church, some of whom had backed Tebartz-van Elst,” he said.
The hapless bishop had initially defended the costly project, saying the centuries-old hilltop cathedral complex adjacent to the modernist new structure is heritage protected, complicating the development.
But his apparent profligacy had sparked ridicule and anger in Germany, with calls for the big spender to be removed and for reforms in the selection process for bishops and the auditing of their finances.
Outrage that taxes paid to the Church by ordinary Germans were apparently being squandered led to demonstrations outside Tebartz-van Elst’s residence.
The Vatican said he would be transferred to another post, without specifying which.
The reformist Catholic group “Wir sind Kirche” (We are Church) called the bishop’s resignation “a positive sign for the whole Church.”
But the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) was less enthusiastic.
“When it comes to finances and governance, Francis moves quickly and boldly. When it comes to children and crimes, Francis [moves] slowly and timidly,” it said in a statement.
The scandal had sparked comparisons between Tebartz-van Elst’s love of luxury and the pontiff’s humble style.
The 76-year-old Francis has refused to move into the lavish papal palace in the Vatican, staying instead in the Casa Santa Marta, a residence for visiting clergy and lay people.
He has repeatedly called for the Catholic Church and its faithful to rid themselves of earthly concerns like his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, warning that “worldliness is a murderer because it kills souls, kills people, kills the Church”.