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Pope orders probe over dismissal of Knights of Malta deputy head

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Thursday ordered an investigation into the ousting of the deputy head of the ancient order the Knights of Malta, who an Italian newspaper said was sacked for promoting the use of condoms in the developing world.

A Vatican statement said a five-member committee had been tasked with looking into the ousting of Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, whose official title was Grand Chancellor. The statement did not elaborate.

The ancient chivalric order, which today runs charities, hospitals and disaster relief in about 120 countries, said in its own statement this month that von Boeselager, a German, was dismissed by Grand Master Matthew Festing after twice refusing orders to step down.

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It cited "grave problems" that had occurred under von Boeselager when he was in a previous position and said he had kept these issues hidden from the order's leaders when he was named Grand Chancellor.

The Rome newspaper Il Messaggero reported last Sunday that the group's leaders were upset that von Boeselager turned a blind eye to the distribution of condoms in facilities run by the order in the developing world.

The order, whose members swear allegiance to the pope, had no immediate comment on the report.

The Church does not allow the use of condoms as a means of birth control and says abstinence and monogamy in heterosexual marriage is the best way to stop the spread of AIDS.

A Vatican source said the investigating team would not concentrate on the issue of condoms but on the internal events that led to the sacking of von Boeselager.

The groups' chaplain is American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American whom the pope demoted from a senior Vatican position in 2014 and who has been a leading conservative critic of the pontiff.

Von Boeselager is a member of the German nobility and was responsible for the foreign policy and diplomatic missions of the Knights of Malta, which was formed in the 11th century to provide protection and medical care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.

The Rome-based order has the status of a sovereign entity, with diplomatic relations with about 100 countries and has permanent observer status at the United Nations. It has 120,000 members, volunteers and professional staff operating across six continents.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)