Following the money

A financial scandal in Germany has shocked the country’s faithful, writes Paul Keenan

Imagine, if you will, the reaction should a report appear in the pages of The Irish Catholic to the effect that an Irish bishop had spent €31 million on his home. Included in the report would be the breakdown of that astronomical bill to include €14,199 spent on a free-standing bath (with headrest), €24,255 on a dining table and €2.9 million on said prelate’s private quarters (dwarfing the ‘mere’ €1 million spent on rooms for visitors).

Judging by the eager coverage offered by the secular press in 2008 when Archbishop Martin spent €500,000 on necessary refurbishments to the rooms, facilities, offices and living quarters at Archbishop’s House in Drumcondra in Dublin, journalists would surely grow light-headed at the potential story of a €31 million spend while the reaction among the laity might reasonably be predicted as ‘apoplectic’.

In truth, this is not much of a prediction as precisely this reaction has greeted the recent workings of German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst. Since early October, the extent of the bishop’s largesse, mostly on his own behalf, has begun to emerge as a Church commission has probed the bill for refurbishments to his residence beside the main cathedral in his Diocese of Limburg (originally predicted as €5 million when work got underway).


The mammoth figures offered above have now been shown to be all too real in Limburg, as is the rage currently being felt by those members of the laity who remained loyal to their Church throughout the clerical abuse scandals which drove so many others away in recent years. It is a loyalty now tested to the fullest extent, with reports of a fresh surge in Catholics in Limburg quitting the Church. Readers may recall that accurate tracking of Church defections in Germany – and Austria – is possible due to the traditional requirement that Catholics officially record their defection so as to end financial contributions to the Church. Limburg district court, which has been dealing with a maximum of four defections per week as a legacy of the abuse scandals, registered 20 defection requests on October 10 alone.

Flown first class

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst’s tribulations pre-date the spending exposé and began in 2010, two years after he took control of Limburg. In that year, the news magazine Der Spiegel alleged that the bishop had flown first class on what was intended to be a charity trip to India. The bishop reacted angrily, insisting – under oath in a court action – that the magazine had not approached him for his side of the story.

This spat appears to have been just one centred on the bishop; reports from Limburg of deep divisions between him and fellow clergy prompted the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, to dispatch retired Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo to the diocese as peacemaker. Part of that search for peace resulted in Bishop Tebartz-van Elst agreeing to open his spending records to scrutiny, resulting in a collective catching of breath followed by a full financial investigation.

Following almost as quickly was a court official who served papers on Bishop Tebartz-van Elst on charges of lying under oath in relation to his Indian itinerary. Der Spiegel is back, and this time it claims to have video footage of the interview the bishop originally denied participating in.

Growing scandal

Bishop Tebartz-van Elst flew from the storm on October 13, travelling to Rome on an official visit (media in Germany assured the laity that the flight was with Ryanair). Unfortunately for him, he found himself landing hours after Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the Conference of German Bishops, who had flown in to discuss – among other items – the growing scandal in Limburg, which had by then, drawn reaction from the German government which hoped a “solution to a very difficult situation” could be found for the good of Catholics.

As The Irish Catholic went to press this week, that solution remained unannounced, though, being sought by a Pope who stresses humility and simple living for his clergy, it may be another easy prediction.