Knights of Malta rebuff Vatican probe into dismissal of leader

By Elise Harris

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St. Peter's Basilica. Credit: Pramio Garson via Shutterstock.

Two days after the announcement that Pope Francis has established a group to look into the circumstances regarding the recent dismissal of the Order of Malta's former Grand Chancellor, the Knights responded – saying the decision was an internal matter.

The response follows the forced resignation of leader Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, which some attribute to controversy regarding the order's charity branch being allegedly involved in distributing condoms in Myanmar to prevent HIV.

On Dec. 22 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had formed a group of five “senior officials” tasked with “gathering any liable factors” and to “fully and quickly inform the Holy See on the matter that has recently affected the Grand Chancellor of the Order, Mr. Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager.”

Members of the group include Archbishop Silvestro Tomasi, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda S.J., Belgian lawyer Mr. Jacques de Liedekerke, Mr. Marc Odendall and Mr. Marwan Sehnaoui.

In response to the formation of the group, the Knights of Malta issued a Dec. 24 statement saying the replacement of a Grand Chancellor is “an act of internal governmental administration” that falls solely in the Order’s competence.

“The aforementioned appointment is the result of a misunderstanding by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See,” the statement continued.

It noted that the Order’s Grand Master, Matthew Festing, wrote a letter to Pope Francis yesterday explaining why the Holy See’s suggestions were therefore “unacceptable,” while at the same time assuring the Pope of his “filial devotion.”

According to a previous, Dec. 13 statement from the Order, Albrecht von Boeselager and his position as Grand Chancellor was the subject of an “extremely grave and untenable situation” Dec. 6, just a few days earlier.

Festing then called Boeselager to take part in a meeting with the Order’s Grand Commander, Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Order’s papal representative, in order to ask for his resignation.

After twice refusing to submit his resignation, Boeselager was, “with the backing of the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council and most members of the Order around the world,” forced to resign as part of a “disciplinary procedure” which can result in the suspension of a person’s membership in the Order.

The reason for Boeselager’s removal, the statement read, “was due to severe problems which occurred during Boeselager’s tenure as Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta, and his subsequent concealment of these problems from the Grand Magistry, as proved in a report commissioned by the Grand Master last year.”

A day later, Dec. 14, the appointment of John Edward Critien as the Grand Chancellor ad interim was announced by the order.

While the real reasons for Boeselager’s removal are still unknown, many have speculated that it is due at least in part to a program the order’s charity branch took part in several years ago offering aid to sex slaves in Myanmar.

Part of the aid included giving condoms to the women in order to protect against HIV. However, Boeselager argued at the time that the condoms were distributed by other aid programs, and not his own.

The Vatican was informed about the incident and the order’s involvement in the program ceased. An ethics committee was then launched in order to ensure that similar mistakes weren’t made in future projects.

Pope Francis’ establishment of the group, then, seems to be aimed at gathering an accurate reading of the facts. Whether or not he will respond to Festing’s letter is yet to be seen. 

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