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ANALYSIS: Pope Francis fired ‘Bishop Bling.’ Will more follow?

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, leaves a meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization at the Vatican on Oct. 19, 2012. Photo by Alessia Giuliani, courtesy of Catholic News Service
Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, leaves a meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization at the Vatican in this Oct. 19, 2012. Photo by Alessia Giuliani, courtesy CNS

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, leaves a meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization at the Vatican in this Oct. 19, 2012, photo. Photo by Alessia Giuliani, courtesy of CNS

(RNS) The news that Pope Francis fired — or “accepted the resignation of” — the German churchman known as “Bishop Bling” because of his big-spending ways has touched off speculation among Catholics that other dismissals could be in the offing.

Here’s the answer in four words: Perhaps, but probably not.

Recent history shows why: Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., remains in office 18 months after his conviction — and $1.4 million spent on his defense — for failing to report a priest suspected of abuse. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony enjoys a high-profile retirement in spite of the disapproval of his own successor over Mahony’s abuse record. Similarly, Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, is still living a gilded existence in Rome years after he was plucked from the U.S. amid the clergy abuse scandal.

Not to mention Newark, N.J., Archbishop John Myers, who heads his diocese amid questions about his handling of abuse cases as well as pricey additions to his upscale retirement home.

Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., has become the first U.S. bishop to be charged with failing to report the suspected abuse of a child.  Photo courtesy Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., has become the first U.S. bishop to be charged with failing to report the suspected abuse of a child. Photo courtesy of Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Financially speaking, “Bishop Bling,” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, was in a league of his own: He spent some $43 million on a luxurious new residence and office complex while cutting staff.

After news of the expenditures broke last September, Tebartz-van Elst was sent to a monastery and Francis sent an emissary to figure out what was happening. On Wednesday (March 26), Francis formally accepted his resignation, which the Vatican said was offered last October.

So is this the start of something new? Don’t hold your breath, for three reasons:

ONE: ‘Bishop Bling’ was a perfect storm

Not only did Tebartz-van Elst spend a ton of money on all the wrong things, but he did so just after the cardinals elected a pope who is making austerity and humility the hallmarks of a bishop in today’s church. Francis wants prelates to “smell like the sheep,” not pricey cologne, and he doesn’t want them to act with the sort of authoritarian and dismissive manner that Tebartz-van Elst displayed.

In fact, as the resignation of Tebartz-van Elst was being announced on Wednesday, Francis was telling thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square that “a bishop who is not in the service of the community does no good.”

Newark Archbishop John J. Myers and co-Adjutor Bernard Hebda hold a news conference at the Archdiocese of Newark's Archdiocesan Center in Newark. Photo by John O'Boyle/The Star-Ledger

Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, left, and co-Adjutor Bernard Hebda hold a news conference at the Archdiocese of Newark’s Archdiocesan Center in Newark. Photo by John O’Boyle/The Star-Ledger

In addition, Tebartz-van Elst last November paid a court-ordered fine of nearly $30,000 to avoid a perjury charge over his false claims that he did not fly first class to India on a charity trip. That’s three strikes.

TWO: There is no process for firing a bishop

It seems odd, but the Vatican just can’t depose or defrock a bishop the way it can — and often does — a priest. The Vatican statement on Tebartz-van Elst justified his departure by saying that his situation “impedes a fruitful exercise of his ministry.”

If that sounds vague, that’s because it is. In recent years, different popes have removed or forced the resignation of numerous bishops, for a host of reasons: financial shenanigans, perceived dissent from church teaching or revelations that they fathered a child or two, as happened with Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala in 2012.

But the real reasons behind the dismissals are usually guesswork since the process is secret, even to the men who are getting the pink slip. Often, there is in fact no real process at all — the Vatican would rather just work behind the scenes to pressure a bishop to resign quietly, and then forget about the whole episode.

“Bishops may be successors of the apostles and Vicars of Christ in their own diocese, but they have fewer rights under Canon Law than parish priests,” the editors of The Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly, said in a 2013 editorial calling for a transparent and just system for removing bishops.

THREE: Poor management isn’t a firing offense

If it were, you might be hard-pressed to find a bishop in many dioceses. Instead, the church’s code of canon law generally requires that a bishop have done something clearly wrong, such as stealing or committing abuse himself — which can trigger “privation” of his office.

As blogger and canon lawyer Edward Peters has put it, “criminal conduct is not the same thing as ‘mismanagement,’ and it is certainly not the same thing as ‘weak performance.’” Doing a bad job could justify sacking a lower-level official, Peters wrote in connection with the resignation of an African bishop in 2011, but does not constitute grounds for firing a member of the hierarchy.

It’s worth noting that disgraced bishops and cardinals rarely lose their titles or are defrocked. Case in point: Mahony, and Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who was brought down  in a sex scandal just before last year’s conclave. Instead, they are told to stay under the radar or are moved to lower-profile posts.

In fact, Tebartz-van Elst, who was removed despite the support of some powerful allies, remains a bishop, and the Vatican said that “the departing bishop … will be given another job at an opportune time.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Until Pope Francis fires and offers up for justice Cardinal Bernie Law, the pedophile ringleader of Boston now hiding in the Vatican closets, there will be no rest.

    “Bishop Bling” has done nothing different from other bishops – he’s just cashing in on telling lies about reality.

    But Cardinal Law is a gang leader and Pope Francis can’t offer up enough smoke screens of sheep stink to evade the criminal activity of this ridiculous preening institution.

  • I wouldn’t move too quick in demanding the Pope fire bishops. It moves matters too close to making them apostolic vicars. Ordination is eternal so you can’t unmake a bishop. Law has his title but no current duties of authority in the Church. Finn is probably one of the rare cases when he needs to be let go.

    Perhaps there needs to be a reform of canon law. Rather than the Pope firing bishops at will, maybe the diocesan priests senate or chapter of canons should be allowed to pass a resolution of no confidence in their bishop, upon which it would trigger a mandatory review by Rome.

  • You’re probably right, but you missed another important reason. Pope Francis is committed to collegiality and wants decisions to be made locally. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst’s resignation was only accepted after the German bishops conference had submitted a detailed 108 pp.) report on the finances of the construction project to the Vatican.

    It is extremely unlikely that the USCCB, given its current makeup, would submit a similar report on Cardinals Mahoney or Law or Bihops Finn or Myers.

  • @Kurt,
    Yeah, here is something Pope Francis could try:

    He could just call the police and hand over the pedophiles.

  • As a former Catholic turned Evangelical, I find much to admire about the Catholic Church; It’s hierarchial structure is not on the list. The lavish ‘costumes’ of the bishops and cardinals are a direct contradiction of Christ’s instruction to live simply. The requirement for celibacy, which is not based in scripture, has contributed I believe, to the problem of pederasty, pedophilia, and the purportedly rare instance of fornication/adultery. If the bishops cited above are a representative sample of the Church’s leadership, Francis has his work cut out for him.

  • I’m glad to see this article mentions other criminal activities apparently committed by bishops in the US, and I hope the President discussed that with the pope, but I hope they also discussed the criminal acts committed by Catholic bishops in California in 2008. The federal judge who revoked the 2008 California anti-gay H8te Vote had in his possession an email written by Catholic bishops to Mormon leaders in which they both agreed to violate California campaign finance laws to throw the H8te Vote by making secret, illegal cash and in-kind contributions to the H8te Vote. The email serves as proof positive they knew they were breaking the law; the email itself is an act of criminal collusion. The email is now in the possession of the US Supreme Court, which upheld that revocation.

    Here is documentation about that email:

  • It’s too bad the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops does not feel as strongly as the German church did about censuring their bishop for his authoritarian and spending habits– Apparently, John Paul the Second ,wonderful pope that he was, put in many conservatives who have covered up child abuse, abuse of church funds, building of retirement edifices, etc.—when will it change?

  • It will change when people demand it, that is, when they no longer contribute time (attendance at services) or money to the Church until abusers are punished and reforms made.

  • bravo pope frances for finally doing what should have been done centuries ago. a pope with guts, wow
    hes the best ever.he practices what he preaches like jesus did so long ago , today and forever. amen

  • It is regrettable that people of high standing has no high esteem of their own public standing or position they hold. It all boils down to personal well being at most times, with scant regard to the eternal laws of mankind inscribed in the hearts of every human being. In Tamil Nadu we have the history of a king ( Pandya king Neduncheziyan) who fell from his throne and died the moment he knew that he had done injustice to a woman. Those were days of real character in mankind. It is highly deplorable these days these values and ethics have so evaporated that even when terminated or dislodged from their pedestal, some animals refuse TO GO! I earnestly pray that God be with the Pope. May God keep the holy father safe in the bossoms of His Sacred Heart. There are wolves all around the sheep, why not in vatican.