VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis expelled a German bishop from his diocese on Wednesday pending the outcome of a church inquiry into his $43 million new residence complex.
The Vatican didn’t say how long Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, 53, would spend away from the diocese of Limburg but it refused calls to remove him permanently. It gave no information on where he would go or what he would do.
The Vatican said the bishop was leaving pending the outcome of a German church investigation into the expenditures and his role in the affair. Fellow bishops and lay Catholics in the diocese, however, expressed doubt that he would ever be able to return.
“This is a crisis of confidence that will be hard to overcome,” said the dean of the cathedral chapter, Guenther Geis.
Limburg’s vicar general, the Rev. Wolfgang Roesch, who had been due to start Jan. 1, will instead begin work immediately and will run the diocese during Tebartz-van Elst’s absence, the Vatican said.
At the center of the controversy is the huge price tag for the construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations. Tebartz-van Elst has defended the expenditures, saying the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because the buildings were under historical protection.
But in a country where Martin Luther launched the Reformation five centuries ago in response to what he said were excesses and abuses within the church, the outcry has been enormous. The perceived lack of financial transparency has also struck a chord since a church tax in Germany brings in billions a year to the German church.
Tebartz-van Elst’s leadership style has also been criticized. In August and September, more than 4,000 people signed an open letter to the bishop criticizing what they considered his authoritarian style.
The head of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, has been particularly blunt in his criticism of the expenditures and the credibility problem it was causing the church. He said the “decisive” turning point came when Hamburg prosecutors earlier this month asked a court to levy an unspecified fine against the bishop for false testimony in a related case.
Zollitsch has said the church commission will investigate the costs of the renovation, the financing and how decisions about the restoration evolved.
Canon lawyers will determine if Tebartz-van Elst violated church law regarding the use of church money, Zollitsch said.
In a statement Wednesday, Zollitsch pledged that the commission would do its work “quickly and carefully.”
Francis’ decision opens “a space to return to inner calm and create a new basis for talks,” he said.
The Vatican stressed that Francis took the decision based on “objective” information, suggesting that the Vatican wasn’t being swayed by the popular outcry. Francis has also made it clear he expects his bishops to live simply, setting as an example his own humble lifestyle.
Tebartz-van Elst met with Francis on Monday.
Germany’s main lay Catholic group, the Central Committee of German Catholics, praised the decision.
“Pope Francis’ decision offers the chance of a first step toward a new beginning in the Limburg diocese, because the situation had become an increasing burden for the faithful there and in all of Germany,” said Alois Glueck, the group’s head.
The German government refused to comment on the matter.
Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrueck, said the pope had made a “smart” decision which gives all concerned time to review the situation calmly. But in comments to the German newspaper Die Welt, he cast doubt on Tebartz-van Elst ever returning to Limburg.
“There is a fundamental crisis of confidence in Limburg. The situation there is a mess,” Bode was quoted as saying.