German "luxury bishop" settles with court over 1st class flight-to-poverty case

BERLIN Mon Nov 18, 2013 3:38pm GMT

File photo of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst's residence and his private chapel (2ndR) are pictured in Limburg October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

File photo of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst's residence and his private chapel (2ndR) are pictured in Limburg October 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

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BERLIN (Reuters) - A German court has dropped for the time being an investigation into a Roman Catholic prelate known as the "luxury bishop" over accusations he lied under oath about taking a first-class flight to visit poverty projects in India.

State prosecutors had sought to have Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg fined for making false affidavits about the flight, but the court accepted a 20,000-euro settlement.

The bishop has also been under scrutiny over separate revelations that he let costs for his new residence in Limburg run to 31 million euros, over six times the original estimate, triggering calls for his resignation.

Last month Pope Francis ordered him to leave his diocese while an investigation and audit into high costs were conducted.

In the case of the flight, prosecutors were investigating whether Tebartz-van Elst had lied under oath when he denied a report in Der Spiegel news magazine that he flew first-class to India to visit poverty projects.

Tebartz-van Elst, 53, said he flew business class. But Der Spiegel made public a mobile phone video recording of a conversation which triggered action by prosecutors in Hamburg.

"The criminal proceedings against the Bishop of Limburg have been suspended provisionally in exchange for 20,000 euros," the Hamburg court said in a statement.

The decision had the consent of the state prosecutors, it said.

The Vatican sent an envoy in September to investigate protests in the diocese. Pope Francis then banished Tebartz-van Elst from his diocese on October 23 for spending so much of Church funds at a time when the pontiff is stressing austerity.

But he stopped short of dismissing him outright although Tebartz-van Elst was ordered to leave his diocese. The issue is an embarrassment for the pope, who has called for a more austere Church that sides with the poor.

Tebartz-van Elst, dubbed "the luxury bishop" by German media, has apologized for any "carelessness or misjudgment on my part" but denied wrongdoing.

The scandal also put pressure on bishops for more financial transparency in the entire Church in Germany, forcing them to scrap centuries of secrecy over the reporting the value of their private endowments.

(Reporting By Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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