Religious Suspension

The still-under-construction residence of the Catholic bishop of Limburg, 
Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, in Limburg, Germany.(Photo: Fredrik von Erichsen, EPA)

Pope Francis has suspended a German bishop caught in a furor over a $42 million renovation to his residence that features lavish fixtures and artwork and a reported $20,000 bathtub.

Bishop of Limburg Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, derided here in newspapers as the "Bishop of Bling," waited eight days in Rome before being granted an audience Monday with Francis.

Francis has been extolling the virtues of humility and modesty among the clergy since being named pope. He put Tebartz-van Elst on leave pending an audit into the diocese's expenditures, the Vatican said Wednesday.

German media, citing official documents, said the residence in the small city of Limburg in western Germany has a conference table that cost $34,000 and a private chapel that cost $4 million. The residence includes offices, private apartments, living quarters for nuns and a museum.

Tebartz-van Elst has defended the expenditures, saying that the bill was actually for 10 projects and that there were additional costs because of regulations on buildings under historical protection, according to the broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Germany's main lay Catholic group, the Central Committee of German Catholics, praised the pope's action as creating "the necessary space to clear up completely and firmly the events in Limburg," said the group's head, Alois Glueck.

"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 over recent weeks," Glueck said.

The German bishops' conference will investigate. Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrueck, told the German newspaper Die Welt that there is doubt whether Tebartz-van Elst will return to duties in Limburg.

"I continue to think that the bishop returning to the Limburg Diocese and a new beginning there with Tebartz-van Elst are very difficult," Bode said. "There is a fundamental crisis of confidence in Limburg. The situation there is a mess."

Tebartz-van Elst has been under intense scrutiny in Germany since it emerged in court documents and news stories that the renovation of the building complex that serves as the seat of the diocese went tens of millions of dollars over budget.

The bishop tasked architect Michael Frielinghaus with creating a house of God that would "still be full of dignity in a century," the architect told German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. The clergyman put no limits on Frielinghaus' spending, the architect said.

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