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Vatican suspends Germany's 'bling bishop'

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:15 p.m.

When Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Germany traveled to India last year to minister to poor slum dwellers, he reportedly flew first class.

This year, renovations of the Roman Catholic bishop's church-owned residence in the city of Limburg ran wildly over budget to cover $620,000 worth of artwork, $1.1 million in landscaping and last-minute design revisions — $42 million in all, billed to the Vatican and German taxpayers, Hamburg's tabloid daily Bild reported.

Dubbed the “Bishop of Bling” by European media that have been avidly tracking his lavish lifestyle, Tebartz-van Elst was suspended from his post by Pope Francis on Wednesday in a clear sign that the new pontiff is serious about diverting resources from the “princes of the church” to the paupers in its congregations.

Tebartz-van Elst flew to Rome this month — on budget carrier easyJet, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported — to explain his finances to the pope after a Vatican delegation was dispatched last month to investigate what had become an embarrassing scandal for the church.

The bishop was forced to wait a week before getting his papal audience on Monday, from which he emerged to tell reporters at the Vatican that his fate was “in the hands of the pope.”

On Wednesday, the Vatican issued a statement saying Tebartz-van Elst was taking an unspecified leave because “a situation has been created in which the bishop can no longer exercise his episcopal duties.”

There was no word on how long the bishop will be suspended or any indication of where he will spend his imposed hiatus.

“Perhaps one could recommend to the bishop that he take over a diocese in Africa, where he can win back his credibility,” Heiner Geissler, a former secretary of the Christian Democratic Union headed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told ARD television.

The spending scandal has rocked the German government as well as the church hierarchy, as German churchgoers are compelled to pay a tax to the state that is used to cover government-administrated religious expenses. Berlin collects more than $6 billion a year for the Catholic Church from those who identify themselves as church members on their tax forms. A significant number have struck their names from the Catholic registry in recent years, though, in protest of the worldwide clergy sexual scandal.

Der Spiegel magazine, whose report on the India trip headlined “First Class to the Slums” prompted Tebartz-van Elst to sue the publication, noted in its most recent edition that the bishop now faces charges of making false statements in affidavits filed with a Hamburg court.

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