The Plight of the Knights of Malta: 900-year-old Religious Order Mired in Financial Scandal and Vatican Intrigue
[Summary/report from Catholic World News – April 27, 2017]
Special report: Internal documents show split within Knights of Malta
As leaders of the Knights of Malta prepare to elect a new grand master, contending factions have put forward radically different explanations for the dispute that caused a crisis in the ancient fraternal order.
CWN has obtained internal documents, circulated widely among members of the Knights of Malta, showing that the chancellor of the Order, Albrecht von Boeselager, was aware that the Order’s charity, Malteser International, had been involved in the distribution of contraceptives, and that an inquiry concluded that the policies of Malteser International were “inconsistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church.” The documents also show that Pope Francis demanded action to end that involvement.
In January of this year, Fra Matthew Fessing, the grand master of the Order, responded to the Pope’s direction by demanding Boeselager’s resignation. When the chancellor refused to step down, Fessing acted on his initiative to oust him. Evidently some members of the Order’s leadership believed that Fessing had overstepped his authority, and the internal documents report that it was “apparent that two-thirds of the Sovereign Council will not agree” to remove Boeselager.
At this point Pope Francis intervened. He called Fessing to the Vatican. The grand master was told that he should come alone, and tell no one about the meeting. When he arrived, the Pope asked for his resignation, and Fessing obliged.
However, some members of the Order have evidently told Fessing that he should not have resigned, and suggest that he should be re-elected to his former post. Earlier this week it was revealed that Archbishop Angelo Becciu, named by Pope Francis as a special delegate to supervise changes in the Knights of Malta, had ordered Fessing not to attend the April 29 session at which the new grand master will be elected. Nevertheless Fessing has arrived in Rome, apparently intent on participating in the vote. Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register reports that the Vatican may have rescinded the order for him to stay away, perhaps because Fessing’s attendance could be required for a valid vote.
Informed sources within the Order say that the April 29 vote will reflect a bitter struggle for control of the Knights of Malta, with the German branch—heavily supported by the Vatican—likely to win control. But some members remain concerned about the direction the German leaders of the Order might take. Those concerns reflect both the dispute about contraceptive distribution and the involvement of the German branch in the acceptance of a large bequest from a shadowy anonymous donor.
A report commissioned by the order concluded that Malteser International, under Boeselager’s administration, became involved in contraceptive distribution, and concealed evidence of that involvement from the international leadership. Even after acknowledging the problem, the inquiry found, Malteser International continued to base its policies on assumptions that contraceptive use is an acceptable means of spacing births, that condoms could be used to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, that young people should be educated about contraceptives as an option, and in general that Catholic moral teachings may be disregarded if medical evidence weighs against them.
However, the dispute about contraceptives could eventually be seen as a secondary issue, in light of the questions arising from the acceptance of a $120 million donation to Malteser International. The donation comes from a trust that has been carefully set up to conceal the identity of the original donor, and the trust itself has been involved in litigation—with the Order’s charity once among its adversaries—over the handling of the funds. The most implacable critics of von Boeselager and the German branch of the Knights argue that accepting the questionable gift is evidence of corruption within the Order, and that revelations about the source could eventually bring disgrace to the Knights and to the Vatican.
Oddly, when Pope Francis set up a commission of five people to investigate the dispute between Fessing and von Boeselager, three of the members had some substantial involvement in the acceptance and/or administration of the anonymous gift. That fact that has reinforced concerns among some Knights that the Vatican had stacked the deck in favor of the German branch.