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Pope temporarily expels German 'luxury bishop' after construction of $42M residence complex

  • germany-bishop-residence.jpg

    Oct. 17, 2013: People walk in front of the residence of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Bishop of Limburg, in Limburg, Germany. (AP/File)

  • Tebartz-van-Elst-residence.jpg

    Oct. 14, 2013: Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst's residence and his private chapel, right, are pictured next to Limburg Cathedral, left, in Limburg. (Reuters)

Pope Francis temporarily expelled a German bishop from his diocese on Wednesday because of a scandal over a $42 million project to build a new residence complex, which reportedly cost at least six times more than planned.

The Vatican didn't say how long Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst would spend away from the diocese of Limburg. But it said Limburg's newly named vicar general, the Rev. Wolfgang Roesch, would run the diocese during Tebartz-van Elst's "period of time away."

Roesch had been due to take up his duties as Tebartz-van Elst's deputy on Jan. 1, but will start running the diocese immediately, the Vatican said.

At the center of the scandal is the $42 million price tag for the construction of a new bishop's residence complex and related renovations.

An initial audit of the spending ordered after a Vatican monitor visited Limburg last month revealed that there were huge cost overruns in the project, leading German media to call Tebartz-van Elst “the luxury bishop” and “bishop bling,” Reuters reports.

Tebartz-van Elst has said the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because of regulations on buildings under historical protection. He apologized for any “carelessness or misjudgment,” but said he did nothing wrong, according to Reuters.

In a statement, the Vatican said the situation in the diocese had become such that Tebartz-van Elst "could no longer exercise his episcopal ministry."

The Limburg scandal has been front-page news for weeks in the country where Martin Luther launched the Reformation five centuries ago in response to what he said were excesses and abuses within the church. The issue over transparency in church finances has also struck a chord among German Catholics since a church tax in Germany brings in billions of dollars a year to the German church.

The head of the German bishops' conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, had been particularly blunt in his criticism of the expenditures and the credibility problem it was causing the church. He has said the church commission would investigate the costs of the renovation, the financing and how decisions about the restoration evolved. Canon lawyers are to determine if Tebartz-van Elst violated church law regarding the use of church money, he said.

The decision on the expulsion was taken after Francis met in the past week with Zollitsch and Tebartz-van Elst.

The Vatican stressed that Francis took the decision based on continuous and "objective" information, suggesting that the Vatican wasn't being swayed by the popular outcry over the scandal. At the same time, though, Francis has made clear he expects his bishops to live simply, setting as an example his own humble lifestyle.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.