He extols the virtues of poverty and humility, but the German bishop of Limburg enjoys first-class flights and a luxurious new living complex. As the truth comes out about their secretive shepherd, local Catholics are threatening to abandon the fold en masse.
The Catholic bishop of Limburg, a small city in western Germany, apparently had noble motives when he boarded a plane to India with his vicar general in mid-January. "We were there to support social projects in and around Bangalore," Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst reported after his return. They wanted to help children "who worked breaking stones," he added.
But this man of God didn't just want to do something good for the poor. He also wanted to do something nice for himself. On the upper deck of a jumbo jet, he and Vicar General Franz Kaspar had made themselves comfortable in the plane's first-class section, which offers such amenities as champagne, caviar and a bed. "Traveling first class means you should always be able to expect the extraordinary," Germany's Lufthansa airline, which Kaspar flew with, promises.
SPIEGEL inquiries about this luxury trip to the slums triggered a flurry of contradictory reports. Questions directed to the diocese press office were answered by a law firm in nearby Frankfurt. The 10-page document contained a cease and desist declaration with a penalty clause forbidding the publication of the claim that the bishop had flown first-class to India -- as well as a €1,890.91 ($2,400) bill for the legal warning. The bishop's lawyer said that the claim "is untrue" and that his client had "flown business class."
But after a follow-up written inquiry, the whole story changed a few days later. Suddenly, the truth was out. Now it was admitted that the bishop and his vicar general had, in fact, sat in first class on both the outbound and return flights. But this was qualified with a claim that this was only made possible because the vicar general -- who enjoys "Senator" status with Lufthansa, which requires at least 100,000 annual status miles -- had used reward points to purchase upgrades from business class in what the lawyer described as a "purely private" action.
The total value of the ticket price and mileage upgrade for the outbound and return flights for both men: roughly €7,000 each.
Of course, this also gives rise to another question: Why would a vicar general travel enough to earn "Senator" status at Lufthansa and the bishop himself to earn "Frequent Traveler" status, which requires over 35,000 status miles in a calendar year? Members of the diocese say they knew practically nothing about the church officials' global jaunts because they weren't reported on the diocese website, in its newspaper or in the local press.
Bishop Tebartz-van Elst, 52, doesn't only embrace luxury when he travels to India to visit poor children and nuns. He also puts a premium on a pleasant standard of living back home in Limburg, one that befits his status. His new, multi-million-euro bishop's residence right next to the city's cathedral is about to be finished. But the complex has sparked a mix of amazement, rage and resignation among the 600,000 Catholics in the diocese. Many cannot comprehend how they are supposed to live in want while their bishop splurges.