Top Church Dignitaries Step Down in Wake of Financial Scandal

.The resignation of the archbishops of Ljubljana and Maribor, Anton Stres and Marjan Turnšek, has been accepted by Pope Francis, Apostolic Nuncio Juliusz Janusz announced on Wednesday.

Janusz cited the difficult financial situation at the Maribor Archdiocese as the reason for the archbishops' decision, suggesting that the move had been prompted by the pope, as reported earlier by the daily Dnevnik.

Andrej Glavan, the bishop of Novo mesto, and Stanislav Lipovšek, the bishop of Celje, have been appointed administrators until full-time archbishops are appointed by the pope.

Addressing the press on Wednesday, Stres and Turnšek accepted their part of responsibility and apologised for the financial collapse of the Maribor Archdiocese and its financial firms Gospodarstvo rast and Zvon I and II.

However, both denied speculation that they were the main culprits for the fall of the archdiocese-owned financial empire. "It is not the diocese which brought down Zvon I and II, but it was the two Zvons which brought down the archdiocese," Stres told the press.

"I was not involved in the management of Zvons nor was it my responsibility. Yet the crisis of the Maribor Archdiocese has been weighing heavily on me from the start," he said.

He added that he accepted that "a share of responsibility was on me", given his previous role in the Maribor archdiocese, even though he denied that the collapse was a consequence of the decisions taken by the Diocesan Economic Council, which he had chaired in this time.

Before taking over as archbishop of Ljubljana in January 2010, Stres, served as coadjutor archbishop in Maribor from January 2009, while he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Maribor as early as 2000.

Similarly, Turnšek, who received the pope's call to resign from his service on 30 April, said that he followed the call in his belief "that this gesture can contribute to the renewal of the Slovenian Church and give its representatives more strength in promoting new evangelisation".

Januzs underscored that he appreciated the attitude of both archbishops, who "demonstrated great attachment to the Church, obedience and humility" in accepting the pope's call for resignation.

He also asked the public to accept the move "as a sign of our obedience to the pope and unity with the pope, so there will be no disruption in our relations with the Holy See because of this.

The Holy See Press Office said in a press release that both archbishops resigned in accordance with the second paragraph of Canon 401 of the Code of Canon Law which deals with bishops who have become unable to perform their office.

Stres and Turnšek are the latest Slovenian church dignitaries who have had to retire in the wake of the scandal that broke out in January 2011, when the financial firms Zvon Ena Holding and Zvon Dva Holding, in majority ownership of the Maribor Archdiocese, had already declared insolvency.

Mirko Krašovec, who resigned as chief of financial operations at the Maribor Archdiocese soon after the scandal erupted, was forced to move abroad in April this year. Similarly, the retirement of Archbishop of Maribor Franc Kramberger in February 2011 was widely interpreted as a repercussion of the scandal.

The action taken against the top two officials of the Roman Catholic Church in Slovenia has been deemed as too severe by two Slovenian Canon Law experts. Both Karel Bončina and Ivan Štuhec believe that the real culprits for the scandal remain safely hidden in the background.

Moreover, Bolčina suggested that the resignations by Stres and Turnšek were more for show. "Many people, not as much within the Church, but outside it, wanted some heads to fall. And heads did fall," Bolčina told the STA.

Italian weekly L' Espresso first broke the news in January 2011 that the Maribor Archdiocese had run up EUR 800m in debts, while the Holy See had allegedly known about the gaping financial hole at the diocese's companies since as early as late 2007.

The diocese managed its financial operations through Gospodarstvo rast, which in turn controlled the holdings Zvon I and Zvon II. All three firms are in receivership, owing some EUR 1.7bn to creditors.

The biggest creditor is Slovenia's largest bank NLB, which is struggling with bad loans. The implications of the collapse of Gospodarstvo rast and its subsidiaries has also impacted on businesses owned by them. The first to enter court-mandated debt restructuring in the process of which it changed hands was the telecommunication company T-2.

In addition, around 65,000 small shareholders stand to lose much of their investments in the Zvon holdings as a result of the developments.

The Vatican has set up to commissions to investigate the scandal, but little is known about the findings. However, the former chief of financial operations at the Maribor Archdiocese Krašovec broke silence last year and pointed his finger at Stres and Turnšek as the ones responsible for risky financial transactions that went against canon law.

Stres, who is widely regarded a strong advocate of religious freedoms and preservation of the traditional family, announced for Radio Ognjišče that he would now return to taking up philosophy, which he labelled his "first love".

Turnšek on the other hand said he would withdraw from public life to practice spirituality in private for the next year. He told Radio Ognjišče that he intended to pursue theology in the future.