VATICAN CITY — Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz van Elst — who was forced to resign as bishop of Limburg near Frankfurt, Germany, after accusations of excessive spending — is to begin a new appointment in March as a delegate on catechesis at the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.
An official at the Pontifical Council confirmed to the Register Feb. 10 that the 55-year-old bishop was appointed in December on behalf of Pope Francis through the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. The official said the bishop’s position is a newly created one and that he was appointed because his “background” and “specialty” is in catechesis.
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the pontifical council, told Corriere della Sera he will report to the department’s secretary and undersecretary and will help prepare catechetical materials for various national bishops’ conferences “but won’t have his signature on texts.”
The Vatican disclosure follows reports in the German press that the bishop had been appointed to the council but that Pope Francis had subsequently withdrawn his nomination, possibly because he was initially tapped to be the pontifical council’s secretary, according to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The Vatican Press Office declined to comment on the appointment when asked by the Register in early February, neither confirming nor denying it had taken place, although Archbishop Georg Gänswein unofficially confirmed the news to Vatican Magazine on Feb. 7.
Bishop Tebartz van Elst was at the center of allegations that he had approved a $45-million remodeling and building project in his diocese that included the bishop’s residence. The expensive project had actually been ordered by his predecessor, Bishop Franz Kamphaus, who retired in 2007.
By the time Bishop Kamphaus retired, the project had already cost $3.5 million. By 2013, those costs had risen to $11.2 million, but when auditors factored in liability for damage to neighboring buildings, the total expenditure soared to $45 million.
Two days after being summoned to Rome to explain the overspending to Pope Francis in October 2013, Bishop Tebartz van Elst was suspended. In a statement, the Vatican said a “situation has been created in which the bishop can no longer exercise his episcopal duties.”
The bishop admitted to “making mistakes” but said his vicar general, Msgr. Franz Kaspar, was principally responsible for the expenditure getting out of control. Msgr. Kaspar, who oversaw the construction of a new diocesan service center, later said he “deeply regretted” that the project had “fallen into such a crisis".
Following an investigation, the Vatican subsequently accepted Bishop Tebartz van Elst’s resignation in March 2014.
Although not without personal responsibility for some of the spending decisions — Bishop Tebartz van Elst did approve of a new bathroom costing almost $40,000, as well as other expensive modifications — many observers believe he was largely the victim of a smear campaign driven by a merciless German press that dubbed him the “Bishop of Bling.” So disputed had the facts become over the case that a fact-checking Web page called “Faktencheck-Limburg” was created, dedicated to uncovering the truth.
One of the main reasons for him being targeted, according to his defenders, was his orthodoxy. In 2008, Bishop Tebartz van Elst drew the ire of some of the German hierarchy when he dismissed a local priest for blessing a same-sex union. Some local priests also criticized his homilies and statements and drew up a petition.
Bishop Tebartz van Elst stood in stark contrast to his predecessor, Bishop Kamphaus, who sparked controversy in the early 2000s by refusing to comply with several requests from Pope John Paul II to stop issuing certificates that opened the way for women to have abortions.
The allegations against Bishop Tebartz van Elst also pale in comparison to the high spending of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, which just spent $150 million on a new diocesan service center. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who heads the archdiocese and is president of the German bishops' conference, has also just had his residence renovated at a cost of $9 million, paid for by the state of Bavaria.
Unlike Bishop Tebartz van Elst, the media notably has paid little attention to the high spending in the cardinal’s archdiocese.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.