Bishop of bling: Episcopal extravagance fuels criticism of state-financed churches

Bishop of bling: Episcopal extravagance fuels criticism of state-financed churches

Oct 19th 2013 | BERLIN |From the print edition

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THE faithful of Limburg, a diocese in Hesse, have been protesting in front of their Romanesque cathedral, a few even affixing “95 theses” to its door to make their views of their bishop unmistakable. But the prelate, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, had already gone to Rome, where he awaits a meeting with Pope Francis that will determine his future. The extent of his excesses is such that it is hard to say which detail most rankles Germans, and not only Catholic ones.For some it is the petty lying. Last year the bishop flew first class to India to look at some do-goody projects. But when Der Spiegel, a news magazine, confronted him, he insisted that he had flown business class, even signing affidavits. On October 10th prosecutors in Hamburg indicted him for perjury.

For others it is the pomp and luxury. In 2010, two years after he became Germany’s youngest bishop at the age of 48, Bishop Franz-Peter began building a new residence next to the cathedral. The cost was estimated at €5.5m ($7.43m). Then his requests piled up. His bathtub cost €15,000. Instead of resting an advent wreath on an iron frame in his chapel, he wanted it suspended from the ceiling, requiring the roof to be cut open, at a cost of €100,000 instead of €10,000. In total, the cost estimates now run to €31m.

Germans usually expect to read about such clerical ostentation in history books about the Reformation. Pope Francis, who has chosen simplicity and modesty as his message, makes the incongruity even starker. In an increasingly secular Germany this latest scandal is disastrous for the churches.

Germany separates church and state much less clearly than does America but more explicitly than Anglican Britain or Orthodox Greece. Its post-war constitution, in a clause carried over verbatim from the Weimar constitution of 1919, favours no particular faith but lets all churches levy taxes on their members through the income-tax system (8% or 9% of a taxpayer’s bill, depending on the state). The state also finances churches directly. It still compensates them for expropriations dating back to 1803, when Napoleon demanded war reparations from German princes.

With this money the churches take on more tasks than in many other countries. One hospital in three, for example, is run by a church, as are many crèches and schools. The churches are Germany’s second-largest employers (after the government). This has drawbacks, says Eva Müller, author of a book critical of the system. A Catholic-run crèche, say, can fire a teacher who divorces and remarries, even though no secular German institution may do so. In one egregious case last December, a woman who had been raped was refused treatment by two Catholic hospitals because abortion was one option.

Aside from public funds, many churches also have half-hidden pots of money to play with. Bishop Franz-Peter, for example, built his compound with money from an endowment set up by a duke of Nassau two centuries ago. Hardly anybody knows what assets are in it. The churches urgently need to make such things transparent, argues Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, a former consultant at McKinsey who has written another critique of Germany’s Catholic church.

In the meantime ever more Germans respond by severing their affiliation with institutionalised religion. Church attendance, weddings and baptisms are all declining. The exodus would be faster still but for the many Germans who remain church members for pragmatic reasons, such as sending children to a church school. Even so, more than 100,000 Germans leave the Catholic and Protestant church every year. In Limburg exits usually run at one or two a day, but have now jumped to about a dozen.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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