Bishop's Extravagant Behavior Triggers Uproar

Although the cathedral lies just a short walk away, the new estate has a private bishop's chapel that looks like a jet-black monolith. The building has appalled local residents, architects and historical-preservation officials alike. People in the city have already come to disparage it as the "Kaaba of Limburg" because some think it resembles the huge sacred cubical stone structure in Mecca.

A small park has also been built for the bishop. In the evenings, Tebartz-van Elst will now be able to stroll through the designer garden while reading his breviary.

All of the structures on the property are linked by corridors and underground passageways, which the bishop's lawyers say are for "logistical reasons." Workers had to spend weeks under the most trying conditions drilling into the bedrock and pouring a huge amount of concrete.

Of course, the plans also envision a library, guestrooms and a room for storing precious reliquaries. A wood-burning stove in the living room adds to its coziness, and expensive construction materials have been ordered. Still, the bishop stresses that "only native materials" have been used, such as limestone from Bavaria, slate from the Mosel region and wood from central Hesse.

While in Rome for the birthday reception of Pope Benedict XVI, people were puzzled when Tebartz-van Elst said that his new, 120-square-meter (1,300-square-foot) quarters only cost €200,000. But his figure ignores the costs for the reception rooms, chapel, offices and rooms for his driver and the two nuns who assist him. The entire complex reportedly costs at least €5.5 million, and the diocese says that it will pay for anything exceeding that amount itself. The current bishop and his chief administrator, the vicar general, have sole oversight over the diocese's assets. Hardly anyone in Limburg knows its true wealth, and financial authorities haven't looked into it.

The bishop has also tried to deflect criticism by claiming that the decision to build the complex was made before his time. But there are indications that this is not the case. Kamphaus stepped down as Limburg's bishop on Feb. 2, 2007, and the position remained vacant until the end of the year, when the pope appointed Tebartz-van Elst to head the diocese. No decisions like this one could have been made during this interim period, and members of the diocese board say that concrete planning for the complex didn't begin until December 2007 -- and that it was designed according to Tebartz-van Elst's wishes.

Calls for Transparency Limburg's Catholics don't want to follow their bishop anymore. Berthold Nebgen, 69, the longest-serving acolyte at the cathedral, says the bishop himself has "lost all sense of reality." He calls the bishop's private chapel an "eyesore in the heart of the old city," thinks it is "ugly and unneeded" and says it drives "a black wedge between the diocese leadership and the population." He now says he intends to stop performing "all services for the church."

Sigrid Grabmeier, the spokeswoman for the German branch of the international We Are Church initiative, which advocates reforms in the Catholic Church's authority structures, says that the bishop "has apparently lost all sense of the external effects" of his actions.

Opinions about Tebartz-van Elst are also divided among the priests under his control. Huburtus Janssen, 74, a well-known priest in the city, say that "the church's members have a right to transparency."

Frank Speth, a local politician with the center-left Social Democratic Party and a Catholic religion teacher, has also come to sense just how heated the mood has gotten. He received a letter criticizing the diocese's "parallel world of well-filled coffers and secret assets." The very next day, his mailbox held a postcard apparently written by a fanatic supporter of the bishop. It addressed him as "little Frank" and said he wouldn't dare to criticize the Catholic Church if he belonged to a different religion -- because then he would have to "seriously worry about getting a knife between the ribs."

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