VATICAN CITY — The head of Germany’s bishops conference warned Monday that the Catholic Church must act quickly to deal with a bishop under fire for lavish spending now that German prosecutors are involved in the case, a tacit acknowledgment that the church’s finances were on the line.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch is in Rome this week to brief Pope Francis on the situation in the diocese of Limburg, where Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst has caused an uproar with the $42 million construction of a new bishop’s residence complex and related renovations.
In a country where a church tax provides the Catholic Church with billions in euros in revenue each year, there have long been calls from church reformers for greater transparency in church finances.
Those calls have mounted in recent weeks as the Limburg scandal has grabbed headlines and Tebartz-van Elst has faced calls for his resignation.
Zollitsch told reporters Monday that the decision by Hamburg prosecutors to ask the court to fine Tebartz-van Elst for providing false testimony in a related case was deeply worrisome.
“It represents a decisive step for us,” he told reporters at the Vatican.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Monday the situation in Limburg was “very difficult.”
“Of course, it is not the German government’s place to give any advice, but I may express the hope that it will be a solution for the faithful, for people’s confidence in their church,” Seibert said.
Last year, the church tax provided the German church with some $6.9 billion in revenue.
Zollitsch said a canon lawyer was on a committee that has been set up to review the costs of the renovation, the financing and how decisions about the restoration evolved.
The lawyer, he said, would determine if Tebarz-van Elst had violated canon law regarding the use of church money.
Tebartz-van Elst told the Bild newspaper that the bill was actually for 10 projects and there were additional costs because of regulations on buildings under historical protection.
He traveled to Rome on Sunday for talks at the Vatican about the scandal. It wasn’t known if or when he would meet with the pope but no meeting was on Francis’ official agenda Monday.
Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.