Shadow budgets of many Catholic bishoprics in Germany.
An incident made the news which in turn made people aware that Catholic bishops in Germany appear to have large discretionary funds, sometimes, whose contents and disposition are not transparent.
The incident happened to be the scandalous new bishop’s residence in Limburg, originally approved for 2.5 million euros but now at 31 million and possibly costing up to 40 million ultimately as the digging and draining that proved so unwieldy and expensive for the site itself may turn out to be endangering the stability of historical buildings around it. Limburg has been settled since at least the Stone Age and has Roman ruins dating back to before the Roman empire became Christian in 380 C.E.
In tumultuous economic times, especially when Germans see more reasons to worry about their traditional issue of inflation, moving cash into real estate may be a wise investment. But the Limburg bishop’s motivations appear not to have been entirely practical ones. He was also caught subsequently perjuring himself about church finances, according to procecutors in Hamburg.
An ecclesiastical friend gossiped to me that the Limburg bishop’s shadow budget or discretionary fund was about 90 million euros because his predecessor was a saver.
In addition to reporting details about the bishop’s construction projects, which were hidden behind an expensive high stone wall and included designer gardens, conference rooms, housing for nuns (as domestic servants?), a chapel, the bishop’s own apartment and an underground relics room, reporters have also used this opportunity to explain the history of how Germany got to its strange semi-separation of church and state whereby the states collect a “church tax” and distribute it to the dioceses (income tax is collected state-by-state in Germany). After Napoleon invaded some German principalities and enacted legal reforms, in 1803 the so-called Reichsdeputationshauptschluss or “German mediatization” according to Wikipedia stripped the officially recognized churches of their property but set up annual payments—almost pensions—to the churches to compensate for the loss. Now, two hundred years later, the government still pays compensation [Staatsleistungen] to the bishoprics—my ecclesiastical friend said these obligations were eliminated for dioceses smaller than bishoprics during the last decade or so—for the church property technically confiscated in 1803. The state also pays churches Staatsleistungen for the social services the churches provide, such as day care. Also, anyone who ticks a box marking themselves as Catholic or Protestant on their mandatory registration form with the local police will automatically owe church tax [Kirchensteuer]. People voluntarily do this because they feel religious, they want to get married in a church in addition to the standard civil marriage in the town hall, or, especially, they are desperate for preschooler day care which was mandated but not provided in Germany until 2013, when actual penalties went into effect for towns that didn’t provide enough day care. Money for saving and maintaining wonderful old church buildings, bells and organs also comes from the state in these forms. Such income streams are how German cathedrals are kept heated in winter despite being giant stone piles with ceilings 20 meters above the floor ducts.
German news reported that the transparent public budget of German Catholic bishoprics includes taxpayers’ voluntary church tax [Kirchensteuer], collected and handed over by the government, for free, and the government’s own payments [Staatsleistungen, several hundred million euros annually] as rent on the property seized in 1803. Bishoprics’ untransparent private budget includes income from e.g. real estate, stocks, bonds, legacies willed to the church and interest income. ARD’s tagesschau.de reported e.g. that the Catholic bishopric of Würzburg said its private property was 271 million euros, and Cologne said it had 166 million euros. A political scientist and journalist disagreed with these numbers however, telling tagesschau.de that the Cologne diocese had three billion euros in cash and property, including an investment in a company that owned ~23,000 apartments, he told ZDF heute journal. The researcher, Carsten Frerk, published a 2010 book estimating annual subsidies of German churches at 19 billion euros and accusing churches of “false labeling” because, he said, nearly all the religious business they carried out was subsidized by government funds, taxpayers’ direct church tax and even N.G.O.’s such as Germany’s health insurance schemes. Mr. Frerk also noted that churches in Germany are exempted from paying property tax or tax on interest income and from many fees as well, while taxpayers can take church tax as a 100% deduction for which the government also receives no compensation.
Tagesschau.de reported that Hildesheim is the only Catholic bishopric that is fully financially transparent. Their books are published in their entirety, and kept according to the German Commercial Code [Handelsgesetzbuch]. ZDF heute journal reported that in the wake of the Limburg scandal 14 of Germany’s 27 Catholic bishoprics started publishing financial statistics about themselves that they hadn’t disclosed before.
To finally financially separate church and state in Germany, governments would have to make large 1803-concluding lump payments to the bishoprics which they feel they can ill-afford right now. Thus the situation continues.
Update on 09 Feb 2014: A report is expected soon from the Catholic church’s five-member commission investigating the financial scandal in Limburg. It doesn’t look good, said Spiegel.de. Construction costs of the bishop’s 2.5-million-euro residence will exceed the most recent estimate of 31 million euros. Some church foundation money [Stiftungsgelder] was diverted into the project; apparently this is mentioned because it was done improperly. Spiegel.de’s source used interestingly arcane words: The investigators managed to document possibly prosecutable [justitiabel] offenses, based among other things on information found in a “secret registry” [Geheimregistratur] found in a “conspiratorial apartment” [konspirative Wohnung] rented separately in Limburg, where the “most important documents” on the church construction project were found together with financial papers bearing the bishop’s signature which could be used as evidence. The commission’s report is supposed to go to the catholic bishops’ conference and the Vatican, but it would be nice if it were shared with the general public as well.
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