Malta Besieged: An Ancient and Sovereign Order Toppled by Rome

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta — known as “the Sovereign Military Order of Malta” or the “Knights of Malta” for short — is one of the Catholic Church’s oldest and most respected institutions. Founded in Jerusalem in the 11th century, the lay religious order began as a monastic community that ministered to and later protected pilgrims in the Holy Land, and continues charitable works throughout the world today. Once rulers of the island of Malta, the Order lost its foothold on its namesake in 1798, during the Siege of Malta, and has been headquartered in Rome since 1834 as a sovereign subject of international law. In essence, the Order is a tiny nation within a nation, with its own laws, governance, passports, currency, a small military corps, and even permanent observer status at the United Nations. The Order claims “more than 13,500 Knights, Dames and Chaplains. Next to them stand 80,000 permanent volunteers and 25,000 employees, most of them medical personnel.”

For most of my life as a Catholic, I had never heard of the Order. It wasn’t until Cardinal Raymond Burke was reassigned as their Cardinal Patron in 2014 that their existence became known to me. In recent months, turmoil between the Order and the Vatican has brought them to the attention of many Catholics, but the details of the intense political maneuvering behind the scenes has eluded many of even the most well-informed observers.

Earlier today, the Sovereign Council of the Order accepted the resignation of their highest officer, Fra’ Matthew Festing, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. It also nullified some of his recent disciplinary acts — acts that we will soon describe in detail. His surprise resignation was tendered just three days ago, reportedly at the insistent request of Pope Francis himself in a private audience. This unprecedented interference in the Order from the Holy See prompts many questions, and I’ve spent much of the past week researching what has transpired to lead us to this point in the story. It is my hope that in the following accounting, you will find a comprehensive summary of these unusual events.

A feeling of urgency and importance pervades this saga. It is a time of intense personal and ecclesiastical controversy for the pope; for him to have prioritized this odd squabble with an ancient chivalric order is bizarre, raising questions about hidden motivations and machinations at the highest levels of the Church.

What lies hidden beneath the stories we are being told? Why is this nearly thousand-year-old sovereign, lay religious order — involved primarily in the sort of charitable works Francis lauds — the target of such an aggressive (and arguably illegal) intervention from Rome? What leverage is being brought to bear by the Vatican to coerce behaviors within the Order that seem, on the surface, entirely contrary to self-preservation and good sense?

Toppling the Order: The Timeline of a Papal Coup

On November 8, 2014, the Vatican announced that Cardinal Raymond Burke — then prefect of the Church’s high canonical court known as the Apostolic Signatura — had been reassigned as Cardinal Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The position was seen by many as a form of banishment, a figurehead post with little clout within the affairs of the Church for an inconvenient cardinal who was gaining significant attention in the media for opposing the errors of a synod on the family that would ultimately lead to one of the most controversial papal documents of all time — Amoris Laetitia. 

Burke’s removal, however, did not engender his silence. Over the past two years after being sent into exile, the American cardinal has not ceased his efforts. He has spoken out again and again, warning of the dangers inherent in an altered pastoral praxis that would seek to allow those living in adultery to receive Absolution (without a purpose of amendment) and the Eucharist. When Cardinal Burke became the de facto face of the Four Cardinals’ dubia on Amoris Laetitia, it appeared likely that it would be seen by powerful hierarchs in Rome — the pope included — as a bridge too far, and quite possibly grounds for retaliation.

Somewhere around the same time — near the end of 2014 — the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Fra’ Matthew Festing, was made aware of charges of impropriety in the conduct of one of his senior officers, Albrecht von Boeselager — this according to the National Catholic Register‘s Edward Pentin. Boeselager, then the Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, had for decades overseen Malteser International — the “worldwide humanitarian relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta” — in his previous position as Grand Hospitaller, a post he held from 1989-2014. During his tenure, it had been alleged, Malteser International had been involved in the distribution of thousands of condoms and oral contraceptives through some of their international programs.

In January of 2016, a three-person commission that had been created earlier by Festing to investigate the allegations presented its findings to the Grand Master.

On November 10, 2016, Cardinal Burke met with Pope Francis in private audience. According to Pentin:

During that meeting, the Register has learned, the Pope was “deeply disturbed” by what the cardinal told him about the contraceptive distribution. The Pope also made it clear to Cardinal Burke that he wanted Freemasonry “cleaned out” from the order, and he demanded appropriate action. [emphasis added]

The pope’s concern over contraceptive distribution when he had previously shown an apparent willingness to allow contraceptive use in eugenic cases is surprising. No less so is his insistence that Burke go on a hunt for Freemasons. Recall that in February of 2016, Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, issued a public letter to his “Brother Masons” in which he stated that “various declarations on the incompatibility of the two memberships in the Church or in Freemasonry do not impede, however, dialogue” on matters such as “communitarian dimension, works of charity, the fight against materialism, human dignity and knowledge of each other.” Recall, too, that Francis himself was celebrated by Freemasons upon his election, and that at least one of his attack dogs targeting Cardinal Burke on the matter of the dubia — Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto of the Roman Rota — has been alleged to be a Freemason since the 1970s.

On November 28, 2016, Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute sent a letter to Cardinal Burke including his own detailed research and findings on the matter of Malteser International’s contraception distribution. His report confirmed what was discovered by the internal commission.

On December 1, 2016, a followup letter was sent from the pope to Cardinal Burke in which Pentin reported that “the Holy Father underlined the cardinal’s constitutional duty to promote the spiritual interests of the order and remove any affiliation with groups or practices that run contrary to the moral law.”

Pentin adds:

The Holy Father did not explicitly ask in the letter that Boeselager be dismissed, and, contrary to reports, Cardinal Burke has insisted that he would never have told Boeselager that the Pope had specifically asked for his dismissal. Rather, inside sources are at pains to point out that the Knights’ leadership could not see how the matter could be otherwise rectified, when great scandal was involved and no one was taking responsibility for it. The leadership believed it was clear that Boeselager was principally responsible for what had happened, especially when, during the Dec. 6 meeting, he gave no reply when asked why he did not formally protest the accuracy of the commission report. [emphasis added]

A reliable source also recalls Boeselager saying at a reception in Rome in 2014: “We have to give contraceptives to the poor or they will die.” Boeselager also reportedly did not reply when confronted with this remark at the Dec. 6 meeting.

The Knights’ leadership, including Cardinal Burke, were convinced that a grave violation of the moral law had been verified, and especially as it had been going on for a period of time, the persons responsible had to be disciplined; otherwise, the institution would lose its credibility.

On December 6, 2016, a meeting was held among some of the top leadership of the Order, including Grand Master, Fra’ Festing, Grand Commander, Fra’ Hoffmann von Rumerstein, and Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Patron. During that meeting, as a result of findings of “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,” Boeselager was called by the Grand Master to resign.

Boeselager refused.

Festing then invoked his authority as superior, and ordered Boesalager to resign. It is at this moment opportune to explain that the senior leadership of the Knights of Malta, as a lay religious order, is only drawn, according to the Order’s constitutions, from the ranks of the “Professed Knights in Perpetual Vows” — those vows being, like other religious orders, poverty, chastity, and obedience. This means that Boeselager was under obedience just as surely as any religious under a superior when the order was made.

Nevertheless, according to Festing, Boeselager refused the order.

“Thus,” reads the statement on the Order’s website, “the Grand Commander, with the backing of the Grand Master and the Sovereign Council and most members of the Order around the world, initiated a disciplinary procedure after which a member can be suspended from membership in the Order, and thus all Offices within the Order.”

On December 8, 2016, Fra’ Festing announced that the mandate of Grand Chancellor Abrecht von Boeselager had ended.

“After his dismissal,” Pentin reported,

inside sources say that Boeselager went to [Vatican Secretary of State] Cardinal Parolin, erroneously telling him that he had been told by Cardinal Burke that the Pope had instructed him to resign. [emphasis added]

Because he viewed the situation as an emergency, according to sources, Cardinal Parolin did not verify what was communicated to Boeselager by Cardinal Burke before writing a Dec. 12 letter to Fra’ Festing on behalf of the Holy Father. In it, he stressed that the Pope’s “only instructions” were those given to Cardinal Burke in his missive of Dec. 1.

On December 12, 2016, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, wrote the above-mentioned letter (PDF Link) to Fra’ Festing, indicating with some urgency that Pope Francis was unhappy with Boeselager’s removal. “I feel compelled to inform you,” he wrote, “on behalf of — and by specific request of — the Holy Father, Pope Francis, that the only instructions given by him are those that were communicated in writing on 1st December last, in the letter addressed to Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, Patronus of the Order.”

“In particular,” he went on, “regarding the use and dissemination of methods and means contrary to the moral law, His Holiness asked that dialogue be the approach used to address and resolve potential problems. He never mentioned, conversely, expelling anyone.”

Fra’ Festing responded, according to Pentin, stressing

that the decision he had taken was “fully in accordance with the instructions” relayed by Cardinal Burke and asked for an urgent meeting with Cardinal Parolin to find a way forward. At that meeting, Cardinal Parolin said he wanted to institute a commission to look into the issues surrounding the dismissal. The grand master and the leadership of the Knights refused such a commission, mainly due to the Knights’ sovereign status that prohibits such interference in its internal governance, according to international law.

On December 14, 2016, Grand Chancellor ad interim Fra’ John E. Critien was elected.

On December 15, 2016, in a move that went largely unnoticed, Georg von Boeselager — Abrecht von Boeslager’s brother — was appointed to a supervisory position at the Vatican Bank.

On December 21, 2016, Cardinal Parolin sent a second letter to Festing, reiterating that the pope did not agree with the decision to remove Boeselager:

“I wish first of all to reiterate that these measures [the sacking and suspension of Boeselager] must not be attributed to the will of the Pope or his directives,” the cardinal wrote in a letter to Festing on 21 December. “As I expressed to you in my letter of 12 December 2016: ‘as far as the use and diffusion of methods and means contrary to the moral law, His Holiness has asked for dialogue as the way to deal with, and resolve, eventual problems. But he has never spoken of sending someone away!’”

The cardinal goes on to say that the action against Boeselager must be seen as “suspended” until the papal commission into the saga has reported, something which will take place at the end of this month.

Cardinal Parolin says Francis would like the conflict to be resolved but raises the possibility the Holy See could take further steps against the Order – and given the defiance of the Pope in this matter, the positions of both Cardinal Burke and Festing are under pressure.

On December 22, 2016, The Lepanto Institute published its findings, which had previously only been made available to Cardinal Burke. Their detailed reporting documented the distribution of condoms through Malteser International.

The Strange Provenance of an Uninvited Commission

On January 25th, The Italian news/tabloid hybrid Dagospia published a fascinating report on the matter. (We won’t link to it here due to that publication’s prolific inclusion of pornographic content; instead we link to a translation provided by Andrew Guernsey) In it, we read that a wealthy Frenchman, Jehan du Tour, bequeathed a sum of nearly 120 million Swiss francs, naming among his heirs two undisclosed individuals and two charities: the Hospitallers of St. John of God and the French Association of the Order of Malta.

Dagospia reports that the executor of du Tour’s estate, one Mrs. Ariane Slinger of Geneva, created a charitable trust under New Zealand law — known until recently as being exempt from much of the red tape of other nations in the realm of offshore accounts  — called Caritas pro Vitae GRADU Charitable Trust. Such a trust would keep the assets in the bequest undivided, with the executor having the power of the purse when it comes time to pay the beneficiaries. Slinger is the CEO of ACE International, which provides “advisory, management, administration and trustee services”. Slinger’s name comes up in odd places online; I found her mentioned on several websites, perhaps most notably at the center of a labyrinthine financial misconduct investigation piece in the UK Independent from 1996.

According to Dagospia, du Tour passed away in 2012, at which point the Order of Malta, having been made aware of Slinger’s role in controlling the funds by a French member, filed suit against her in Geneva — a suit which could, Dagospia alleges, lead to criminal proceedings against Slinger. (The nature of the suit is unclear from the report.)

And this is where things get really interesting.

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi was, until February of 2016, the Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva — which makes him Slinger’s Genevan compatriot. (Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who has been intimately involved in negotiations between the pope and Fra’ Festing, was his boss. Nuncios fall under the Vatican Secretariat of State, Section for General Affairs.) Tomasi — also a member of the Order of Malta — created another foundation called Caritas in Veritate. The website lists the foundation’s long term goal as “to make the positions of the Catholic Church more understandable to third parties and more visible in the open debate held within the United Nations system.” Tomasi is no longer listed publicly on the website, as his position has been taken over by Slovenian Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, who now holds Tomasi’s former position as UN Observer (and is himself a Conventual Chaplain Grand Cross ad honorem of the Order of Malta). Tomasi’s bio page as a board member, however, remains accessible. The treasurer position for Caritas in Vertitate went to Marc Odendall, another member of the Order and an international investment banker who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 to the board of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority — a group Fortune magazine says was “set up by Pope Benedict XVI to clean up the Vatican’s financial activities after a string of scandals.”

The Dagospia report also points out that on the board of directors of Caritas in Veritate is one Marie Therese Pictet Althann, who has served as Ambassador and Permanent Observer of the Order of Malta to the United Nations since 2005. Caritas in Vertitate has, according to Dagospia,  also organized various conferences involving a Lebanese banker named Marwan Senhaoui, who heads up the Lebanese chapter of the Order of Malta.

The influence of members of the Order at the foundation is, therefore, not insignificant.

In 2014, when Albrecht von Boeselager became Grand Chancellor of the Order, he began, according to Dagospia, to interact with Slinger on some proposals related to the du Tour inheritance. Just what those proposals were remains unclear. But Dagospia asserts that Odendall and Sehnaoui worked together to prepare a report on the matter. A significant amount of interaction via email between these individuals is alleged to have taken place. At one point, Dagospia reports, Slinger addressed Tomasi as “Dear Sylvano” — a surprising informality, unless perhaps they were more familiar with one another than casual acquaintance would permit.

When the new Vatican commission set up to investigate the sacking of Boeselager was announced, it included five members, three of whom are his notable associates with ties to the activities in Geneva: Archbishop Tomasi, Marc Odendall, and Marwan Senhaoui. From Pentin:

The five members of the commission of enquiry are Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s former observer to the United Nations in Geneva; Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University; Jacques de Liedekerke, a lawyer; Marc Odendall, an investment banker; and Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the Order of Malta in Lebanon.

Apart from Father Ghirlanda, all those appointed to the group are members of the order, and most are known allies of Boeselager. Odendall is known to be particularly supportive of Boeselager, and Archbishop Tomasi is a good friend of Odendall, according to sources inside the order.

Pentin also reports that Cardinal Parolin, who seems to be orchestrating a good deal of the Vatican’s involvement in the matter, has been aware of the du Tour bequest since early 2014.

The question remains unanswered as to what level of involvement — if any — the members of the Order who have worked at Caritatis in Veritate have had with Slinger and her Caritatis pro Vita foundation, both located in Geneva.

The Timeline Continues

On December 23, 2016, Boeselager issued a statement (PDF link), rejecting the legality of his ouster by the Grand Master on various grounds. Among these, and arguably most important when it comes to setting the stage for what comes next, is this objection:

The first ‘justification’ [for Boeselager’s ouster] was that my dismissal was in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See. As I have already detailed above, such a request was never made. The letter from the Holy See confirming that no such request was made has so far not been presented to the Sovereign Council by the Grand Master.

To date, there has been no public revelation of the December 1 letter from the pope to Cardinal Burke outlining his “duty to promote the spiritual interests of the order and remove any affiliation with groups or practices that run contrary to the moral law”. Boeselager is claiming that he was told that the Holy See wanted him removed. Burke has said that he would “never have told Boeselager that the pope had specifically asked for his dismissal”; he has also revealed that he was there when it took place: “I can’t make any comment on these decisions because I was never consulted. I was present at the dismissal.”

On January 3, 2017, Fra’ John Critien, who was elected as interim Grand Chancellor on December 14, said, according to Pentin,

that the order “cannot collaborate” with the papal commission, not only because of its “juridical irrelevance” with respect to the order’s legal system, but “above all” in order to “protect its sovereign prerogatives against initiatives in form objectively aimed at questioning or limiting its sovereign character.” The order had already publicly stated such “interference” is “unacceptable.”

He, therefore, stressed that lack of collaboration with the commission is purely for “juridical motivations” and is “not and can in no way be considered lack of respect towards the commission itself nor towards the Secretariat of State of the Holy See.”

On January 4, 2017, Pentin says that Archbishop Tomasi

replied to Fra’ Critien’s Jan. 3 letter, which he said “makes some statements whose inaccuracy creates misunderstandings” and “directly contradicts the wishes of the Holy Father.” According to the archbishop, the issue with respect to Boeselager’s dismissal “is not the sovereignty of the order, but the reasonable claim of questionable procedures and lack of proven valid cause for the action taken.” Also, he said, “there has never been the request for the resignation or dismissal of anyone, on the part of the Holy See and especially of the Holy Father.”

“Regarding what Your Excellency calls the juridical irrelevance of the commission, the arguments used to replace the grand chancellor prompted its establishment by the Holy Father, since the perceived irregularity of the procedure has deeply divided the order,” Archbishop Tomasi stated.

It is unclear in what capacity Tomasi was speaking. Was it as a commissioner of this newly formed group of Vatican investigators? Was it as a member of the order? Was it as a colleague and associate (and possibly a friend) of Boeselager? What is clear is that the narrative that “the Holy Father never asked for Boeselager to be fired” is the rhetorical key to everything that would come after. What is impossible to verify — due to the confidentiality surrounding Burke’s November 10th meeting with Francis and his December 1 followup letter from Francis — is whether this claim is even true. And Cardinal Burke, inasmuch as he is a man with a reputation for conducting himself with honor and integrity and abiding by the rules, isn’t likely to reveal more, even if it comes at a personal cost.

On January 10, 2017, in a statement that has now been removed from the Order of Malta’s website as, it appears, part of the nullification of Fra’ Festing’s most recent acts as Grand Master, Festing reiterated the Order’s sovereignty against an imposed Vatican investigation. In part, the statement (available here as part of Robert Moynihan’s excellent January 22, 2017 letter) reads:

The Grand Magistry of the Sovereign Order of Malta, in response to the activities being carried out by a Group appointed by the Secretary of State of the Vatican, considers it appropriate to reiterate that the replacement of the former Grand Chancellor was an internal act of the government of the Order.

Thus, considering the legal irrelevance of this Group and of its findings relating to the legal structure of the Order of Malta, the Order has decided that it should not cooperate with it. This is to protect its sovereignty against initiatives which claim to be directed at objectively (and, therefore – quite apart from its intentions – reveals it to be legally irrelevant) questioning or even limiting said Sovereignty.

Article 4 paragraph 6 of the Constitutional Charter is clear when it states that “the religious nature of the Order does not prejudice the exercise of sovereign prerogatives pertaining to the Order in so far as it is recognized by States as a subject of international law” and Article 4 paragraph 5 reiterates that “the Order has diplomatic representation to the Holy See, according to the norms of international law.”

The confirmation of such status under international law is also attested to in the Annuario Pontificio of the Holy See, where the Order is mentioned only once and not amongst the religious orders, but rather amongst the States with Embassies accredited the Holy See.

 

On January 14, 2017, Festing sent an internal letter to members of the Order to inform them on what was transpiring and to reassure them of the legality of the process used to remove Boeselager. “The legal position has been clarified by numerous sources, and most importantly by the Advocate General, who has issued a statement defending the correct procedure which was followed.” He questioned again the involvement of the Holy See in an investigation, and reiterated that the decision was an act of “internal governance” and that the Holy See “has, in spite of its honourable and laudable intentions, no way of effectively intervening in such matters.”

The letter also notes the “serious accusations of a conflict of interest for at least three of the members who have been proved to be linked to a fund in Geneva. The two former Grand Chancellors had been overseeing the Order’s interest in this fund. Needless to say there is nothing to suggest anything untoward, but personal and financial links make the Commission members clearly unfit to address the situation objectively. … In refusing to acknowledge this group of people’s jurisdiction, I am trying to protect the Order’s sovereignty.”

On January 17, 2017, a Vatican press communiqué said that “the Holy See reaffirms its confidence in the five Members of the Group appointed by Pope Francis on 21 December 2016 to inform him about the present crisis of the Central Direction of the Order, and rejects, based on the documentation in its possession, any attempt to discredit these Members of the Group and their work.”

On January 24, 2017, Pope Francis unexpectedly called Fra’ Festing to the Vatican for a private audience. We reported that day, following a report from the Spanish-language website InfoVaticana, that Festing had been asked to resign, and had acquiesced. We later confirmed our story with a source with knowledge of the situation. The following day, Edward Pentin provided more detail:

In a Jan. 25 statement, the Vatican said: “Yesterday, 24 January 2017, in audience with the Holy Father, His Highness Fra’ Matthew Festing tendered his resignation from the office of Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.”

“Today, 25 January, the Holy Father accepted his resignation, expressing appreciation and gratitude to Fra’ Festing for his loyalty and devotion to the Successor of Peter, and his willingness to serve humbly the good of the Order and the Church.”

The statement ended by saying “the governance of the Order will be undertaken ad interim by the Grand Commander pending the appointment of the Papal Delegate” — a significant and controversial development in view of the Order’s sovereign status.

The confirmation follows comments a spokesperson told Reuters last night, that the Pope had asked the Grand Master to resign “and he agreed.” The Register has confirmed this through other sources, and learned that the meeting was convoked with just two hours notice, at 5.30pm.

On January 26, 2017, Pentin published a new report. In it, he revealed a new letter from Cardinal Parolin, and additional details of the meeting:

Pope Francis has declared that all actions taken by the head of the Order of Malta and its governing council since the dismissal of Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager last month are “null and void,” including the election of Boeselager’s replacement.

Writing on the Pope’s behalf to members of the Order’s governing council Jan. 25 … Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin stated that the Holy Father, “on the basis of evidence that has emerged from information he has gathered, has determined that all actions taken by the Grand Master after December 6, 2016, are null and void.”

He added: “The same is true for those of the Sovereign Council, such as the election of the Grand Chancellor ad interim.” The Council elected Fra’ John Critien as Boeselager’s temporary replacement.

Cardinal Parolin began his letter by re-emphasizing that the Grand Commander, Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein, is now in charge of the Order, adding that “in the renewal process which is seen as necessary,” the Pope would “appoint his personal Delegate with powers that he will define in the act of appointing him.”

What is more astonishing is Pentin’s description of what was asked of Festing during his audience with Francis:

The Pope summoned Fra’ Festing to the Vatican on Jan. 24 on the strict instruction not to let anyone know about the audience — a modus operandi that has been used frequently during this pontificate, the Register has learned. During the meeting, Francis asked Fra’ Festing to resign immediately, to which the Grand Master agreed. The Pope then ordered him to write his resignation letter on the spot, according to informed sources.

The Register has also learned that the Pope told Fra’ Festing that the reason for asking for his resignation was the Pope’s conviction that he has to do a new, complete investigation of the Order, and that such an investigation would be more easily conducted if the Grand Master resigned.

The Register has been told that the Pope then had Fra’ Festing include in his letter of resignation that the Grand Master had asked for Boeselager’s dismissal under the influence of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Order. However, as patron, the cardinal has no governance in the Order and can only counsel the Grand Master, meaning the decision to dismiss the Grand Chancellor belonged solely to the Grand Master.

We do not know if Festing agreed to this condition of implicating Cardinal Burke. We do know that Burke has claimed from the beginning that while he was present for the December 6 meeting with Boeselager, he had no role in the decision making process that led to his removal from the Order. Burke has also maintained that he never conveyed to Boeselager anything pertaining to the wishes of Pope Francis as regards to his removal.

But now, it appears that Cardinal Burke is in the crosshairs. In a piece at Vatican Insider, Papal sycophant Andrea Tornielli openly accuses Cardinal Burke of lying to Pope Francis about Boeselager, taking pains to cast the scandal-plagued Grand Chancellor as coming from “an old anti-Nazi German noble family” whose father “took part in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944”. Tornielli says that Burke

was gaining influence in the Order and on 10 November 2016 attended an audience with the Pope. During the audience, he assured the Pope that is was Boeselager who was responsible for the “condomgate” scandal. Burke also requested a papal letter backing the dismissal of the Grand Chancellor who was considered too “liberal”. Francis wrote a letter inviting the Knights to ensure Catholic morality was respected but explicitly asked for the dispute to be resolved by means of an internal discussion, without anyone getting the chop. But the Pope’s wishes, which did not in any way call for Boeselager’s removal, were not taken into consideration.

Tornielli continues:

Thanks to many testimonies and documents, Vatican investigators discovered that Francis had not been told the truth and that the report on the condom case was neither accurate nor complete. Boeselager, the commission concluded, held no responsibility in the case: as soon as he had learnt about the condoms being distributed, he ended the co-operation with the NGO. The Grand Master’s open challenge to the Holy See and the incomplete information on the case were the final straw.

The consequence of that “final straw” being, according to Tornielli, the pope’s insistence that Festing resign.

Today, January 28, 2017, that resignation was accepted by the Order’s Sovereign Council. The Council has also, according to their statement, “annulled the decrees establishing the disciplinary procedures against Albrecht Boeselager and the suspension of his membership in the Order. Albrecht Boeselager resumes his office as Grand Chancellor immediately.” [emphasis added]

The statement then, with conspicuously ingratiating language, proffers the following:

The Sovereign Order of Malta is most grateful to Pope Francis and the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin for their interest in and care for the Order. The Order appreciates that the Holy Father’s decisions were all carefully taken with regard to and respect for the Order, with a determination to strengthen its sovereignty.

Meanwhile, as Parolin’s January 25 letter affirms, that sovereignty is now entirely subject to the mandates given by Pope Francis to his as-yet-to-be-selected delegate to the order:

To help the Order in the renewal process which is seen as necessary, the Holy Father will appoint his personal Delegate with powers that he will define in the act of appointing him.

The Grand Commander, in his role as Interim Lieutenant, will exercise the powers contained in Art. 144 of the Order’s Statute until the Papal Delegate is appointed.

More Questions Than Answers

Following this complex sequence of events, we are left with many important questions. Foremost among them:

  • Why would the pope ask Cardinal Burke to clean house at the Order, only to later take action against the Order for doing just that?
  • What instructions were actually contained in the Pope’s December 1 letter to Cardinal Burke, and were they carried out appropriately?
  • If Boeselager was discovered to have been responsible for programs distributing condoms during his tenure as Grand Hospitaller by two separate investigations, how is it possible that a five-person commission assembled only a month ago has exonerated him completely?
  • How can the Vatican offer any pretense of accepting the judgment of a commission the majority of which have a conflict of interest as pertains to their apparent dealings with Boeselager, Slinger, and the 120 million Swiss franc trust?
  • What relationship does Cardinal Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, have, if any, to the involvement of his former employee, Archbishop Tomasi, in relations to the “fund in Geneva” — a fund that Edward Pentin reports he has had knowledge of since 2014?
  • Why was Boeselager’s brother Georg appointed to an oversight position at the Vatican Bank just days after Boeselager’s removal from the Soevereign Council was announced? Was this just a coincidence?
  • How does Marc Odendall’s own position as an appointee of Pope Francis to the board of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority relate to his involvement as member of the Order, Treasurer of Caritatis in Veritate, and member of the investigatory commission into the Boeselanger affair?
  • What interest does Pope Francis have in keeping Boeselager in place while removing Festing, particularly after he expressed his concerns so strongly to Cardinal Burke in their November 10 meeting and his December 1 letter? Why is he interfering in the affairs of a sovereign entity, which has essentially the same legal status as a nation?
  • What leverage could have been applied to Festing to force his resignation such a short time after he made strong statements of sovereign independence and an unwillingness to collaborate with a Vatican probe? Why did his Sovereign Council accept his resignation if they truly care about the continued sovereignty and integrity of the Order? Was this really a matter of enforcement of the obedience to the Holy Father outlined in article 62 of the Order’s constitutions?
  • Why is Cardinal Burke being specifically targeted by the pope in a way that places responsibility for an act of internal governance of the Order on his shoulders, despite his lack of authority within the juridical structure of the Order?
  • What precedent does this set in terms of international law, and how is the Vatican’s own sovereignty not damaged by this action?

It is impossible not to wonder about the unflattering realities the answers to these questions might reveal. Was the pope’s instruction to Cardinal Burke to do his duty and clean up the order merely a trap? Was it motivated by a personal vendetta against Burke as the most notable opponent to the pope’s signature exhortation, Amoris Laetitia?

What about the money? Would anyone at the Vatican stand to gain by keeping quiet about any possible malfeasance as regards the du Tour trust through the removal of Festing and the reinstatement of Boeselager? Are the interim Grand Master or the papal delegate going to quietly drop the lawsuit against Ariane Slinger and leave the money in the Caritatis pro Vitae trust?

Why would Festing give up so easily, and with so little warning? Our contacts with members inside the Order have confirmed that there was no indication, even at the highest levels, that this resignation was coming.

What of the conveniently timed revelation of a mishandled child sex abuse scandal within the Order’s ranks? From Christopher Lamb at The Tablet:

The Vatican are also aware of a child sex abuse scandal that exploded in the UK under the Grand Master’s watch and which led to an inquiry by Baroness Cumberlege.

She found that three knights had made a catalogue of serious errors when handling abuse complaints made against Vernon Quaintance, a former sacristan for the Knights of Malta who was found guilty of nine sex offences including those against boys as young as 11 he had met in the 1960s and 70s.

While the three knights involved later apologised, one of them, Duncan Gallie, was appointed by Festing as a member of the order’s Sovereign Council and is living in Rome.

If this is the motivating factor in the pope’s decision, what of his own exposure to encroaching sex abuse scandals that he is personally connected to?

How much of what has transpired might involve something other than the apparent details of the case, instead relating to ideological conflicts between Pope Francis and the Grand Master and his new Cardinal Patronus? In his story at the The Tablet, Christopher Lamb also reported that

Sources inside the order seeking reform say Festing and his allies want the “good old days” of 1950s Catholicism, with the old rite Mass and autocratic leadership.

The President of the knights’ German Association, Erich Lobkowicz, told the National Catholic Register that his had been a “battle between all that Pope Francis stands for and a tiny clique of ultraconservative frilly old diehards in the Church — diehards that have missed the train in every conceivable respect”.

Meanwhile, in Argentina the Pope had his own dispute with the knights who had been part of a nexus of opposition against him as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Francis is wary of Catholic chivalric orders, which he worries can show signs of profligacy and  “spiritual worldliness”; when a knight in Argentina sent him a first-class ticket to Rome it was reportedly shredded into pieces and returned to sender.

Is the idea of a backlash against traditionalist strain within the order more relevant in light of news that Francis is seeking a review of the new Mass translation for the Novus Ordo, and amidst related rumors that he wishes in some way to cut the legs out from under Summorum Pontificum?

Is it a coincidence that on January 10, 2017 — the same day that Fra’ Festing issued a statement reiterating the Order’s sovereignty in the face of a proposed Vatican investigation, Pope Francis gave a homily in which he said:

Jesus served the people, He explained things because the people understood well: He was at the service of the people. He had an attitude of a servant, and this gave authority. On the other hand, these doctors of the law that the people… yes, they heard, they respected, but they didn’t feel that they had authority over them; these had a psychology of princes: ‘We are the masters, the princes, and we teach you. Not service: we command, you obey.’ And Jesus never passed Himself off like a prince: He was always the servant of all, and this is what gave Him authority.

Was the Grand Master, whose uniform could easily be described as “fancy clothes” and whose proper title was “Prince and Grand Master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta,” the target of these remarks?

Pope Francis and Fra’ Matthew Festing. Image courtesy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Was the aggressive resolution of this matter part of a vendetta on the part of Pope Francis toward the Knights of Malta? Austen Ivereigh, papal biographer and ally of Francis, revealed in an article at Crux that there is a history of conflict between then Cardinal Bergoglio and a faction within the Order:

The two may be wholly unconnected, but this is not the first time that Francis has faced hostility from the Knights of Malta, some of whose leading figures were involved in an unsuccessful plot in 2008 to remove Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and replace him with a chaplain to the Knights, the Bishop of Zárate-Campana, Oscar Sarlinga.

Bizarre as it sounds, the plot was widely spoken of at the time, and has since been confirmed by a number of those involved, including Sarlinga himself – although he denies being in favor of the idea – in an interview to the religious correspondent to La Nación, Mariano Vedia, for his book, En Nombre del Papa (‘In the Name of the Pope’).

Whatever the answers to these questions, there is a great deal that remains unknown. In no way can an external observer of the facts in this case feel confident that justice was accomplished in the hasty removal of Festing — who appears to have sought only to do his duty — and the subsequent reinstatement of Boeselager. Neither can we feel content with the apparent scapegoating of Cardinal Burke as the source of opposition to the Holy See in the matter.

On January 27, I spoke to Michael Hichborn about his own investigation. “The real focus of this whole thing,” Hichborn said, “should be Boeselager and the fact that he was in charge of an organization that was distributing contraception – and there’s no question about it.” Hichborn said that Boeselager’s own story changed, alternating between outright denial that he knew about the programs, and the claim that once he did know, he shut two out of three of them down. According to Hichborn, Boeselager’s stories are in conflict with one another – and with the known facts. “Boeselager said that it was a third party who was distributing the condoms. It was not. And there are three independently-verified sources that say that Malteser International itself was distributing the condoms.” Hichborn named UNAIDS, The Three Diseases Fund, and The World Health Organization as the three organizations that made these claims — claims he documented in his report.

Cardinal Burke also thought this should have been focus of any action. He told Ed Pentin that it concerned him “very much” that in the entire

unfortunate reaction to the grand master’s just action is the loss of the heart of what is at stake, namely, a grave violation of the Church’s moral teaching and, indeed, of the natural moral law by a high profile and historic Catholic institution.

It is clear that this concern for the moral law and the Church’s teaching is the driving force that animates Burke’s work as a cardinal, bishop, and pastor of souls. It has never been more clear that here is a prelate uninterested in power or prestige. His obvious concern for following the teachings of Our Lord seems to be why he has intervened as he has in this matter, just as it appears to be why he has voiced his concerns with increasing urgency about the Church’s change in praxis around Amoris Laetitia, and it is clear in his work on the dubia. 

And for his service to the truth, they may very well try to accuse him of disobedience to the pope as pertains to the matter of the Knights of Malta, with disciplinary action a very real possibility. This faithful prelate’s allegiance to the Catholic Faith has increasingly managed to be the source of his own marginalization — and possible persecution — within the Church. May God bless him abundantly for his faithfulness, and preserve the Order that — for now — remains under his patronage.

This post has been updated.

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