(ROME) — Pope Francis on Wednesday suspended the free spending German Bishop Franz Peter Tebartz-van Elst — known derisively as Bishop Deluxe or the Bishop of Bling — and ordered him to vacate the Diocese of Limburg, at least temporarily.
The pope, who has declined to live in the Vatican’s opulent papal residence, has been urging prelates to adopt a more humble lifestyle and Wednesday’s actions were the strongest yet to reinforce that message.
The pope’s decision was released in a short statement from the Vatican press office stating that the actions of the bishop had created a situation “where in the present moment he cannot exercise his Episcopal ministry.”
“Pending the results of this examination and the related investigations on the responsibilities in this regard, the Holy See considers it appropriate to authorize Bishop Franz -Peter Tebartz-van Elst a period of stay outside the Diocese,” the statement said.
The pope’s decision to expel the “Bishop of Bling” — as he has been dubbed in the international media — takes effect immediately.
A final decision on the future of the big spending priest will be determined only after the German Bishop Conference has finished a detailed report on the cost of the remodelling of the bishop’s official residence. The pope was reportedly told last week that the final costs may reach $55 million, $13 million over the already substantial price tag.
After a week of waiting, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst met with Pope Francis in a 20-minute closed door meeting last Monday. No official statement was released, but German media reports that after the discussion, the bishop was upbeat, calling it “an encouraging conversation.”
He has not been seen in public since the meeting. The bishop continues to insist that the high cost was in part because of the need for historical preservation of the 10 buildings on the property.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst also is under investigation for false claims in the use of church money for travel to India. A prosecutor’s office is deciding whether to pursue perjury charges.
The Limburg diocese has about 650,000 members. Some have taken to protest daily in front to the area’s main cathedral. Last summer, before the news of the spending scandal, 4,000 people in the diocese had signed an open letter to complain about the bishop’s leadership.
In Germany, the family of the ostracized bishop has reportedly been intimidated, according to media outlets.
“We get daily death threats by phone or in letters,” the brother of the priest, Johannes, told the Bunte newspaper. His 87-year-old mother told the same paper that the family is standing behind her son despite of the criticism.
It could take up to three months to finalize the Bishop Conference report. In the meantime, the Diocese will be run by a substitute vicar general. One of the most senior members of the German church had already suggested that the bishop should use this time to examine his conscience over the crisis he has caused.
“I am convinced that the Bishop of Limburg…will confront this situation in a spirit of self-criticism,” Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German bishops’ conference, said last week.
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