Pope warned Knights of Malta not to sack Grand Chancellor

Letter sent to Knights warned Order not to sack Grand Chancellor over Myanmar condoms allegation before papal commission carries its own investigation

Pope Francis told Matthew Festing not to sack Boeselager before a papal commission investigates the allegations
Pope Francis told Matthew Festing not to sack Boeselager before a papal commission investigates the allegations

Letters seen by English Catholic news weekly The Tablet have revealed that Pope Francis specifically requested the Knights of Malta that no one be dismissed in a dispute that saw its third-in-command, Albrecht von Boeselager, thrown out as Grand Chancellor and then suspended from the Order.  

Boeselager was replaced by Maltese knight John Critien, who now represents the Sovereign Military Order as its foreign and home affairs minister.

Boeselager was sacked on 6 December by the Knights’ Grand Master, Matthew Festing, in the presence of the Order’s patron and prominent conservative critic of Francis, Cardinal Burke.

The reasons for Boeselager’s dismissal primarily date back to when he was Grand Hospitaller from 1989 to 2014 and in charge of Malteser International, the Knights’ large humanitarian aid agency located in 24 countries. During his tenure, the organization is documented to have distributed thousands of condoms and oral contraceptives, mainly but not exclusively to help prevent prostitutes in the Far East and Africa contracting HIV/AIDS.

The allegations were spearheaded by Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute, who presented his findings to Burke in early November.

Boeselager denies the charges.

But now it has emerged that Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin wrote to Festing a few days later, clarifying that the Pope did not want Boeselager sacked.

As a result of the Knights’ decision, the Holy See decided to set up an investigation into the Knights.

“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 also said that the Holy See could take further steps against the Order.

In an extraordinary statement issued before Christmas, Festing told the Pope that the sacking of Boeselager was an internal matter and the Secretariat of State had misunderstood the situation. 

But in his letter to the Grand Master, Cardinal Parolin points out that the Knights are a “lay religious Order” which includes “service to the faith and to the Holy Father” and therefore the Holy See does have authority to act in this case.

Fra' John Critien is the new Grand Chancellor of the Order
Fra' John Critien is the new Grand Chancellor of the Order

Critien writes to papal commission

On 3 January, the new Grand Chancellor Fra’ John Critien told the Knights 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.”

He stressed that lack of collaboration with the commission was 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 4 January, Archbishop Silvano Tomas – one of the members of the papal commission – replied to the 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.

The eleventh-century Knights are Catholicism’s oldest military Order, running charitable initiatives across the globe – they are also treated as a sovereign entity with diplomatic relations with countries across the world. Festing, known by the title of “His Most Eminent Highness”, is a quasi-head of state and treated as an honorary cardinal. 

The row has sparked an internal crisis, with Boeselager insisting that his sacking and subsequent suspension from the Order was unconstitutional and is threatening to use the Order’s legal system to prove his point. 

He said that condoms had been distributed by three projects in Myanmar without the Order’s knowledge. “When this was discovered in the course of routine project auditing, two of these projects were immediately ended,” he wrote. “An immediate closure of the third project would have led to the abrupt end of all basic medical services in an extremely poor region of Myanmar, so this dilemma was submitted to an ethics committee [of the Order]. Subsequently the project was closed, following a statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”