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Ousted Knights of Malta official takes his case to court

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Fra' Matthew Festing, the 79th prince and grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, during a private audience at the Vatican (CNS)

The standoff between the Vatican and the Knights of Malta has taken a new twist, with the ousted foreign minister of the ancient lay Catholic order appealing against his suspension to the Knights’ internal tribunal.

Albrecht von Boeselager was removed on December 8 after he refused a demand by the top knight to resign over revelations that the order’s charity branch distributed tens of thousands of condoms in Burma under his watch.

In a statement von Boeselager said that he filed an appeal with the Knights’ tribunal last week. The appeal argues that “not even one of the conditions” governing suspension of members applied to his case.

Specifically, he said there was no reason to initiate a disciplinary procedure against him, and that regardless the one used to suspend him was invalid.

Pope Francis has intervened in the dispute, setting up a commission to investigate what the Vatican number two has said was an “unprecedented crisis” within the order. The leadership of the Knights, however, has refused to cooperate with the investigation, citing its status as a sovereign entity under international law.

The case has partly drawn attention because of the role played by Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is the papal ambassador to the Knights but also a critic of Francis.

Boeselager has said he was told, during a meeting attended by Cardinal Burke, that the Pope wanted him to resign as grand chancellor over the condom scandal. Sources in the order, and Cardinal Burke, are said to are said to deny this.

The Vatican Secretary of State has said the Pope wanted no such thing and wanted the issue resolved through dialogue.

The Order of Malta has many trappings of a sovereign state. It issues its own stamps, passports and licence plates and holds diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.

But in a December 22 announcement of its investigation, the Vatican cited its status as a “lay religious order” that is at the service to “the faith and the Holy Father”.

The knights trace their history to the 11th century with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for pilgrims of all faiths. It now counts 13,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers who provide health care in hospitals and clinics around the world.