Developing

German Catholics take 'luxury bishop' scandal to pope

BERLIN (Reuters) - The head of Germany's Roman Catholic Church said on Thursday he would discuss with Pope Francis a scandal over a bishop who has been criticised for splashing out on a luxury residence and accused of lying under oath about a first-class flight.

Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the German Bishops' Conference, said he took the situation in the Diocese of Limburg very seriously. His decision to take the matter to the pope may raise pressure on the bishop of Limburg to stand down.

Francis' response to the case is being closely watched, because it may show how far he will go to promote frugality and simplicity in a church plagued for decades by sexual abuse scandals and questions about opaque financial transactions at the Vatican bank.

State prosecutors said they wanted Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, bishop of Limburg which is near Frankfurt, fined for making false affidavits about a first-class flight to India.

"I am sure that the Bishop is dealing with this thoroughly and with the necessary self-criticism. Next week, I will speak to the Holy Father in Rome about it," said Zollitsch.

Prosecutors have been investigating whether the bishop lied under oath when he denied a report in Der Spiegel news magazine that he flew first-class to India to visit poverty projects.

Tebartz-van Elst said he flew business class but Der Spiegel has made public a mobile phone video recording of a conversation which triggered action by prosecutors in Hamburg, where the weekly is based.

Revelations this week that the bishop let costs for his new residence run to 31 million euros, over six times the original estimate, triggered calls for his resignation.

Newspapers have splashed pictures of the 53-year-old "luxury bishop" on their front pages and the Vatican sent an envoy last month to investigate protests in the diocese, marking the Pope's determination that bishops should be closer to congregations.

Zollitsch, who is trying to improve the image of the German Church after it was hit by a sex scandal about three years ago, said the move by the prosecutors was of great concern. He has set up a commission to audit the bishop's finances.

After the Vatican monitor's visit last month, Tebartz-van Elst apologised for "any carelessness or misjudgement".

But he defended himself in the German press on Thursday.

"The number is shocking, I understand that. But behind it there are 10 individual construction projects," he told Bild newspaper. "We have built a diocese centre in a sustainable way so that it will be available to future generations."

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Stephen Brown and Mike Collett-White)