The head of the Order of Malta has resigned after entering into a public spat with Pope Francis over the ousting of a top official involved in a condom scandal, a spokesman for the lay Catholic order said on Wednesday.
Fra’ Matthew Festing met with the Pope on Tuesday and offered his resignation, Order of Malta representative Marianna Balfour told the Associated Press. “I can confirm this,” Balfour said in an email, adding a statement would be forthcoming.
Fra’ Matthew had refused to cooperate with a papal commission investigating his ousting of the grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations that the order’s charity branch had distributed condoms under his watch. Fra’ Matthew had cited the Order’s status as a sovereign entity in refusing to cooperate.
Last week, the Holy See said in a sharply worded statement that it plans to take action to resolve the dispute, which had set the stage for one sovereign entity intervening in the internal affairs of another.
In a January 17 statement, the Vatican called the issue a “crisis of the central direction” of the Order of Malta.
Fra’ Matthew suspended Boeselager on December 8 over revelations that the Order’s charity branch had distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Burma under his watch. 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 Boeselager refused an order to obey Fra’ Matthew and resign.
Francis appointed a commission to investigate after Boeselager said he had been told by Fra’ Matthew that the Holy See wanted him to resign 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 wouldn’t cooperate with the Pope’s commission, citing its status as a sovereign entity under international law.
In a January 14 letter, Fra’ Matthew 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 Order had a financial interest and therefore couldn’t be trusted to address the controversy objectively.
He didn’t elaborate. The National Catholic Register has reported that three of the commission members were involved, along with Boeselager, in a $118 million bequest to the order. Fra’ Matthew 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 Boeselager, and the Vatican’s former UN envoy to the UN in Geneva.
In its January 17 statement, the Vatican hinted that it plans to take measures based on the commission’s final report — a move that could rile the Order over their sovereignty claim. 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.