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.
This complicated web is handled with such secrecy that not even the financial department heads of all dioceses openly discuss their finances with one another. Seemingly baroque structures make these finances even more difficult to fathom. Depending on the diocese, the administrators of the church's funds can be members of a church tax council, a diocesan tax panel, a financial board or an administrative board. Sometimes assets are also spun off into foundations.
Of Germany's 27 Catholic dioceses, 25 refused to provide information in response to a SPIEGEL survey, noting that this information "is not made public." Only two dioceses, Magdeburg and the Archdiocese of Berlin, which was on the verge of bankruptcy a few years ago, were somewhat more accommodating, probably because they have so few assets to hide in the first place.
The vicar general of a well-heeled diocese, on the other hand, said: "Yes, the assets in the bishop's see are secret. But perhaps it would be better if you wrote: confidential." When asked to explain this secretiveness, a spokeswoman of the Diocese of Limburg responded: "That's just the way it is." Finally, a representative of the German Bishops' Conference said: "I don't want to talk to you about this."
Elected lay representatives at the base are hardly more successful. They face a wall of silence, even when they are responsible for financial supervision in their diocese. One of them is Herbert Steffen, whose congregation appointed him to the diocesan council in Trier. Steffen, 75, is not exactly a fierce critic. A former furniture manufacturer, he comes from an arch-Catholic family of entrepreneurs in the Moselle River region. His concern was as straightforward as it was conservative: He wanted to make sure that his diocese was in solid financial shape.
The businessman was irritated by his experiences in the diocesan council. "I was surprised by the small size of the budget. It was something I thought we ought to look at," he says. At a council meeting, he asked a confidant of the bishop whether this was the entire budget. "There is also the budget of the bishop's see. But it isn't intended for the public," the official replied. When Steffen asked, "are you telling me that we can't see it, either?" the official said: "No!"
In Cologne, one of the world's wealthiest dioceses, there is also a wide gap between appearance and reality. Grassroots Catholics there have had to struggle to stay afloat financially. Churches have been closed while a shrinking number of priests have had to minister to bigger and bigger congregations in line with strict requirements outlined in austerity programs. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Cologne has a large budget of €863 million, and the assets of the archbishop's see are estimated at several billion euros. According to church critic Frerk's calculations, the diocese's holdings in a group of companies known as the Aachener Gesellschaften, which consist of about 26,000 residential and commercial units, were worth more than €1 billion in 2003.
[The diocese of Limburg] is currently planning to build a new residence for the bishop, partly with funds from the bishop's see. Residents of the small city refer to the hill above Limburg, where the bishop will live behind the tall stone walls of a former aristocratic estate, as the "Acropolis."
"Our bishop wants to be a prince again," the locals say mockingly. By contrast, his predecessor, Bishop Franz Kamphaus, chose to live modestly in a two-room apartment in the seminary instead of the old bishop's residence, which he turned over to a family of Ethiopian refugees for several years.
What architects have designed for Tebartz-van Elst on the "Acropolis" is far more than a generous apartment with an on-site chapel. As part of the project, adjacent buildings will also require extensive renovation and conversion. New quarters will be needed for an order of nuns that will be moving in to ensure that His Excellency is well taken care of. And as part of a new security system for the cathedral museum, relocating one of the museum's emergency exits will cost €1.5 million alone. As an added benefit, it will be harder to disturb the bishop in his refuge in future.Meanwhile, the bishop has ordered his flock to live by the motto "Save and Renew." Limburg is one of the dioceses cutting back on parishes, masses and priests.
Why do the princes of the church refuse to be held accountable to their congregations? And why are they so careful to keep the government, which supports them so generously, out of their financial affairs?
A former spokesman of a diocese has spent a lot of time thinking about these questions. He attributes the current problems to the pre-modern world of diocesan ordinariates and residences, which revolved around royal courts. "The bishops and prelates, with their colorful titles, feel superior to the Western world and shield themselves against it," he says. "The confessional stands in the church, not the offices of the tax authorities."
Ugh. They should all be strung up and hanged.