VATICAN CITY — In the latest developments in the dispute between the Holy See and the Knights of Malta, the head of the 900-year-old order has written to its members emphasizing that his refusal to recognize a Holy See commission of inquiry is because he is trying to protect the order’s sovereignty and to safeguard the Church and the Knights from “any potential scandal.”

The Holy See has responded by issuing a statement Jan. 17 in which it reaffirmed “its confidence” in members of its commission, adding that the Holy See “counts on the complete cooperation of all in this sensitive stage” — meaning that it still expects the order to cooperate with it. The Holy See went on to say that it “awaits” the commission’s report “in order to adopt, within its area of competence, the most fitting decisions.”

In his letter dated Jan. 14, Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing also sought to offer reassurance that the legality of the process used to remove former Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager has been “clarified by numerous sources,” in particular the avvocato di stato (attorney general), who issued a statement Jan. 10 saying the correct procedure had been followed.

Boeselager was asked to resign Dec. 6 because of what the order, in a Dec. 13 statement, called an “extremely grave and untenable” situation. He refused twice, leading the grand commander, with the backing of the grand master and the order’s Sovereign Council and “most members of the order around the world,” to initiate a “disciplinary procedure” against him that saw him suspended from all offices within the Order of Malta.

His dismissal led to the Holy See announcing Dec. 22 a commission of inquiry (the Vatican prefers to call it a group), which is seeking to obtain information on the matter. It began acquiring information Jan. 16 and is mandated to complete its work by Jan. 31. The Order of Malta has refused to recognize the group of inquiry, saying it is an internal matter of governance for the order and that its religious nature “does not prejudice the exercise” of its “sovereign prerogatives.”

In an article on the matter last week, the Register revealed that the group is made up of five members, most of whom have been close associates of the former grand chancellor, including the commission’s head, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi. Further complicating matters is the fact that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, is a friend of Boeselager. According to sources within the order, the ex-grand chancellor applied considerable pressure on the Holy See to set up the commission immediately after his dismissal.

In a Dec. 13 statement, the order defended its reasons for removing the German-born Boeselager, saying it 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.”

 

Order: ‘A Failure of Trust’

These severe problems primarily related to the distribution of contraceptives, but the order has also referenced other issues that it says remain confidential. The order’s spokesman, Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate, told the Register Jan. 13 that Boeselager was “ultimately responsible” for the contraceptive distribution, as reported by the first Register article on this story, but there are other issues amounting to “a failure of trust.”

The issue of contraceptive distribution was nevertheless a considerable factor that eventually led to Boeselager’s dismissal. According to a firsthand testimony given by a former employee with Malteser Werke, the order’s humanitarian arm in Germany, the organization “definitely distributed condoms within its refugee service facilities” in the German towns of Xanten, Hemer, Hamm, Willich and Viersen and “perhaps also in other localities” as far back as the early 1990s. Boeselager was grand hospitaller of the order at the time and responsible for overseeing the work of the Malteser agency, a position he held from 1989 to 2014. The employee found the distribution of condoms at odds with his conscience and faith, but when he raised the matter with his immediate superior, he said he was threatened with dismissal.

Although a number of the order’s national associations have publicly backed Fra’ Festing, others are concerned that such a long-serving and senior member should have been dismissed without any kind of tribunal. They have also been critical that he has been replaced by two “unelected” members, which they describe as a “coup” attempt.

Robbiate said such a statement “is nonsense,” as the interim grand chancellor, Fra’ John Critien, was elected in May 2014 to the Sovereign Council, a body that assists the grand master, and then elected as grand chancellor in December. The other “unelected” member in question, Christophe Drzyzdzinski, has not changed his role as director of the grand master’s cabinet, a position he has held since 2014.

Robbiate also stressed that all members “are committed to faithfully comply with its laws” and that no disciplinary action has been taken other than that against Boeselager. He also said the grand master “regularly consults the constitutionalists before making major decisions” and that this was specifically done before Boeselager’s dismissal.

Boeselager is not giving comments to the media until the commission has finished its work, but in Jan. 11 comments to the Register, his spokesman, Max Hohenberg, drew attention to the fact that Boeselager had taken his case to the magistral tribunal of the order to appeal against his suspension and in particular his removal from the function as grand chancellor. Hohenberg said his suspension went against the constitution and argued that “no disciplinary procedure has validly been initiated.”

 

Conflict-of-Interest Accusations

In his Jan. 14 letter, Fra’ Festing said the makeup of the Holy See commission had “raised serious questions,” including because of “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 Register previously reported three commission members — Archbishop Tomasi, Marc Odendall and Marwan Sehnaoui — had been involved with Boeselager regarding a mysterious 120-million Swiss Franc ($118 million) donation to the benefit of the order.

According to documentation the Register has obtained, the order appears to be connected to a Swiss trust.  The Register contacted the trust, but did not receive answers to questions related to such connections.  Instead, reference was made to Swiss law and criminal penalties if the name of the trust or its members, or allegations about the trust, were published.

The Register has contacted Archbishop Tomasi, Odendall and Boeselager to request information about their apparent involvement in the trust (their names are also in the documentation), but all three have declined to comment ahead of the Jan. 31 completion of the commission of inquiry’s work.

In his Jan. 14 letter, Fra’ Festing said regarding the fund that “there is nothing to suggest anything untoward, but personal and financial links make the commission members clearly unfit to address the situation objectively.” He added that what he has learned of the trust has prompted him to set up an Order of Malta commission to look into it. The Register understands that the trust, like many of Boeselager’s activities, were unknown to Fra’ Festing, who was elected grand master in 2008.

In its Jan. 17 statement, the Holy See reaffirmed its “confidence” in the five members of the commission and said it “rejects, based on the documentation in its possession, any attempt to discredit these members of the group and their work.”

 

The German Association

The Order of Malta’s leadership has long struggled with its German association. Sources within the order say the association — the wealthiest of all of the order’s national bodies — is seeking to “disenfranchise” the highest rank of the order — its religious — who take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, and ultimately take over the running of the order.

Due to its lack of vocations, the German association does not have a single professed member, so none of their members can become grand master and be involved in the order’s highest level of decision-making, which is why some say the German members wish to see an end to religious vows. “The Germans want to remove the grand master and take over the entire Via Condotti [the Knights’ administrative headquarters in Rome],” said a source inside the order who wished to remain anonymous.

“The Germans play a huge role and don’t play by rules,” said another source speaking on condition of anonymity, while sources in Rome and Germany have indicated that Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich was highly active in helping to influence the decision to set up a papal commission of enquiry.

The German association denies allegations of wanting to rid the order of its religious character. Its president, Erich Lobkowicz, told the Register Jan. 7 that it is “completely absurd to claim that we do not, with all our heart, support the professed knights as the core of the order.” He added, “We think they should come from the old aristocracy or like-minded generous Catholic people” and said that the order’s lay nature “depends on the professed knights.” 

“We have not the slightest inclination to change this,” he said, and he put the current dispute down to 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.”

He added that the German association was “being bad-mouthed as too liberal, because that's easier than attacking the Pope.”

Lobkowicz also said it “pains us deeply to be defamed by certain persons, doing nothing but sitting around in luxury, as lacking in faith or spirituality.” 

The German association president added, “We actively help and do our best to live and proclaim our Catholic faith. There is no teaching of the Church we do not adhere to! Ask our cardinals and bishops, most of whom know us well.”

 

Papal Concerns

Despite these firm denials, the Register has learned that the Holy Father has taken the claims seriously and has asked Cardinal Raymond Burke to review the order’s constitutions specifically to address the allegations of a German strategy to remake it into what some fear would become a quasi-non-governmental organization. The aim of the review would be to affirm the religious nature of the order, especially with respect to its highest ranks, which, until Boeselager was elected grand chancellor, used to be filled only with professed knights who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The review instruction came after the order’s last elections in 2014, when the German association succeeded in placing three very senior positions (grand chancellor, grand hospitaller and receiver of the common treasure) into the hands of non-professed knights. The second rank, to which Boeselager belonged, is a contemporary introduction into the constitutions and is seen by some members, from the most senior ranks down, as a means of diminishing the importance of the professed knights, especially when their vow of obedience seems to be misunderstood, as critics of Boeselager maintain.

Lobkowicz’s response to the order’s opposition to the Holy See commission, which he called an “open rebellion” against the Pope, was not well received by some associations, most notably the Italian association. And according to a source inside the order, further “horrible” messages from German members attacking the grand master are likely to provoke “disciplinary action” against them when this dispute ends. Such behavior contravenes the order’s constitution.

Some in the order speculate the Holy See commission already has reached an internal conclusion, given the very short time it has been given to complete its work. But with its longstanding ties to the Holy See, it's hoped a resolution can be reached in which all sides save face.

Cardinal Parolin was invited again to answer questions on the issue by the Register, but his office did not respond. His office later pointed out that the cardinal had already said it was "not opportune" to reply at the current time.

 

‘Let Us Pray Together’

In his Jan. 14 letter, Fra’ Festing stressed he would “not allow the rebellion of a few influential members of the order to succeed in their aim, for whatever reason, to drive a wedge between the Holy See and the order and the Holy Father and me.” And he urged members not to misunderstand his intentions, “nor question my unflinching loyalty to the Holy Father.”

“Let us pray together, that this needlessly fluid situation is quickly resolved and that unity can be restored to the order,” he said. “The only truly disturbing consequence of the removal of the former grand chancellor is the distraction of some members of the order from their defense of the faith and their service of Our Lord, the sick and those in need.

“I call upon all of you to unite in prayer and service to witness the strength and unity of the order, and to ensure that those few who are trying to drive a wedge between the Holy See and the order for their own interests meet with failure.”

“I personally need your loyalty and support now more than ever,” Fra’ Festing’s letter concluded. “Please pray for the Holy Father’s intentions, for the continuation of our good relations with the Holy See, and for me.”

In its Jan. 17 statement, the Holy See reiterated its “support and encouragement for the commendable work” that the order carries out in various parts of the world in defending the faith and serving the poor and the sick.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.