German bishop agrees to audit, apologises for uproar

PARIS Sun Sep 15, 2013 8:01pm BST

PARIS (Reuters) - A German Catholic bishop accused by critics of being an autocrat and lavish spender has agreed to let an outside commission audit his finances after a rare week-long visit by a Vatican monitor.

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, whose costly new residence is out of step with Pope Francis's stress on simplicity and poverty, apologised for any "carelessness or misjudgement on my part".

Tebartz-van Elst and Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, a Vatican diplomat examining the diocese that includes Germany's financial capital Frankfurt, celebrated Mass together on Sunday before the Italian prelate was to return to Rome and report to the pope.

In his sermon after the Gospel, which told the parable of the Prodigal Son forgiven by his father for squandering his fortune, Lajolo stressed the Vatican's concern to find a consensus in the deeply divided diocese.

"The final report of the commission, which will examine and include all costs, finances and procedures involved, will be disclosed publicly," Tebartz-van Elst pledged in a joint statement with his cathedral chapter of advisors.

The bishop has disputed criticism of his management and pledged last month to explain the cost of the residence.

Lajolo's visit marked a new Vatican willingness to correct mismanagement by bishops, who Francis has said should not be careerists but shepherds with the "smell of their sheep."

Mismanagement by bishops and the Vatican's slow response were at the root of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church around the world for more than a decade. There are no sexual abuse allegations in this case.

WASTE AND SECRECY

The mounting accusations of waste and secrecy against Tebartz-van Elst prompted protests from Limburg priests and parishioners and lively media speculation about huge cost overruns in the construction of his stately residence.

Lajolo, the Vatican nuncio (ambassador) in Germany from 1995 to 2003, spent the past week meeting the bishop, his advisors, diocesan priests and lay people "and will inform the Holy Father (Pope Francis) about this in detail," the statement said.

It said the Limburg bishops' advisors had pledged to work with him to "seek peace and maintain unity" in the diocese.

At the Mass, Tebartz-van Elst told the congregation: "The conflicts that erupted so openly and strongly in recent weeks have upset and angered many believers, not only in our diocese but in the whole country. I am very sorry for any carelessness or misjudgement on my part."

Rev Johannes zu Eltz, Frankfurt's senior Catholic cleric, told Hessischer Rundfunk television he expected the bishop to turn over his financial files within three weeks to a commission to be named by the German bishops' conference.

Leading German prelates such as Mainz Cardinal Karl Lehmann and Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx, a close advisor to the pope, have issued veiled criticisms of Tebartz-van Elst's management.

The Limburg bishop, 53, had been a candidate for the large archdiocese of Cologne and its soon-to-retire Cardinal Joachim Meisner, an influential conservative figure under ex-Pope Benedict, was one of the few bishops to publicly support him.

Eltz, one of Tebartz-van Elst's most vocal critics, said the bishop could not stay in office if an inquiry into his role in an unrelated legal case concludes that he made false statements under oath. The bishop denies lying in that case.

The Frankfurt priest said Lajolo's visit had dispelled "the atmosphere of paralysing fear" in the diocese because of what he described as the bishop's autocratic and secretive leadership.

Since Lajolo's trip was described as a "brotherly visit" rather than a formal investigation, it was not clear what the Vatican might do once the report by the German bishops' commission is published.

Two archbishops in Slovenia and one in Cameroon have resigned because of financial scandals since Francis was elected pope in March.

(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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