Shortly before Pentecost, Pastor S. received an unexpected early morning visit, not from the Holy Ghost, but from the police.
For the authorities, the words of the Gospel of Luke came true on that morning: He who seeks finds. More than €131,000 ($158,000) were hidden in various places in the rooms of the Catholic priest, tucked in between his laundry or attached to the bottom of drawers. The reverend was arrested on the spot. After several weeks in custody, Hans S., 76, is now back at the monastery, waiting for his trial.
And lo and behold, the proliferation of cash may have been even more miraculous than initially assumed. The public prosecutor's office in the southern city of Würzburg now estimates that S. may have embezzled up to €1.5 million from collections and other church funds. The members of his flock in a wine-growing village in the northern Bavarian region of Franconia are stunned. They had blindly trusted their shepherd, who always seemed so humble and modest.
The Catholic Church is currently being shaken by a number of financial scandals, not only in Franconia but also in Augsburg, another Bavarian city, where Bishop Walter Mixa's dip into funds from a foundation that runs children's homes recently made headlines.
More than €40 million have gone missing in the Diocese of Magdeburg in eastern Germany, €5 million have disappeared in Limburg near Frankfurt, and it was recently discovered that a senior priest in the Diocese of Münster had 30 secret bank accounts. And while parishes throughout Germany are cutting jobs and funds for community work, many bishops are still living on the high horse. A brand-new residence? An ostentatious home for their retirement? Restoration of a Marian column to the tune of €120,000? None of these expenditures presents a problem to high-ranking church officials from Trier in the west to Passau in the southeastern corner of Bavaria, whose coffers are brimming with cash.
In many places, this blatant disparity, along with reports of mismanagement, misappropriation and pomposity have prompted the faithful to challenge church officials. They are accusing many bishops of just covering up the problem, as they did in the sex abuse scandal. They are determined not to allow anyone to see behind the curtain into their parallel world of bulging bank accounts and hidden assets, which, in some cases, have buttressed their power for centuries. The only aspect of church finances that is public is the diocesan budget, which derives its funding from the church tax -- but the church's true assets remain in the shadows.
Now all of this wealth is becoming a political issue, however. The unemployed, recipients of housing assistance, families, communities, businesses, the military -- in the coming years, the federal government plans to deprive them all of billions of euros. But the church, of all things, is being spared, and hardly anyone questions the generous support it receives from the government.