Knights of Malta head resigns after row with Pope Francis over condom scandal

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The head of the Knights of Malta resigned after a public row with Pope Francis over the ousting of a top official involved in a condom scandal, the ancient lay Catholic order said.

Matthew Festing met with the pope on Tuesday and offered his resignation, Knights of Malta spokeswoman Marianna Balfour said.

Mr Festing had refused to cooperate with a papal commission investigating his ousting of the grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations the order’s charity branch distributed condoms under his watch.

Mr Festing cited the Knights’ status as a sovereign entity in refusing to cooperate.
Last week, the Holy See said in a sharply worded statement it plans to take action to resolve the dispute.

The remarkable showdown is the latest example of Francis clashing with more conservative elements in the Catholic Church, especially those for whom sexual ethics and doctrinal orthodoxy are paramount.

In a January 17 statement, the Vatican called the issue a “crisis of the central direction” of the Knights of Malta.

Mr Festing suspended Mr Boeselager on December 8 over revelations the Knights’ charity branch had distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Burma under his watch.

Church teaching forbids artificial contraception.

Mr Boeselager has said he stopped the programmes when he learned of them.

The order’s leadership has said the scandal was grave and called it “disgraceful” that Mr Boeselager refused an order to obey Mr Festing and resign.

Francis appointed a commission to investigate after Mr Boeselager said he had been told by Mr Festing the Holy See wanted him to quit over the scandal.

The Vatican secretary of state has said the pope wanted nothing of the sort and wanted the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.

The order’s leadership had said it would not cooperate with the pope’s commission, citing its status as a sovereign entity.

In a January 14 letter, Mr Festing questioned the credibility of the pope’s commission, saying there were “serious accusations of a conflict of interest” involving three of its five members.

The three, he wrote, were linked to a Geneva-based fund in which the Knights had a financial interest and therefore could not be trusted to address the spat objectively.

He did not elaborate.

The National Catholic Register has reported that three of the commission members were involved, along with Mr Boeselager, in a 118 million dollar bequest to the order. Mr Festing has decided to launch an internal inquiry into the matter.

The commission is made up of a noted Jesuit canon lawyer, three members of the order said to be close to Mr Boeselager, and the Vatican’s former UN envoy to the UN in Geneva.

In its January 17 statement, the Vatican hinted it plans to take measures based on the commission’s final report.

The order is also a Catholic lay order and its leadership takes an oath of obedience to the pope.

The Vatican had said it “counts on the complete cooperation of all in this sensitive stage” – an apparent reference to the order’s refusal to cooperate.

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