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Exclusive: Order of Malta projects distributed abortifacients, says leaked report

A window with the Malta cross at the house of The Order of Malta in Rome (Getty)

A 2016 internal report into Malteser International found that some projects were distributing contraceptives which could cause abortion.

The report, seen by the Catholic Herald, was written by three leading bioethicists: Dr Neil Weir, Professor Luke Gormally and Professor John Haas. It was sent to hundreds of Order of Malta members around the world.

The Order of Malta, of which Malteser International (MI) is part, commissioned the report in 2015, after concerns were raised about possible distribution of contraceptives by MI projects.

The report’s authors stated: “We have been informed that MI supplies Levonorgestrel to rape victims on request and intramuscular (IM) Depo-Provera for birth spacing where NFP [natural family planning, which the Church approves] is deemed inappropriate.”

Both substances, the authors noted, “could have an abortifacient as well as a contraceptive mode of action”. MI’s stated policy was not to distribute potential abortifacients.

In December, the Pope was informed about the distribution of contraceptives by MI projects. Albrecht Boeselager, who is now Grand Chancellor but had previously been Grand Hospitaller, the overall head of MI, was asked to resign by the Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing. Boeselager denied all wrongdoing, and refused to step down. This led to an internal conflict in the Order. After a Vatican investigation, Fra’ Festing resigned at the Pope’s request.

Boeselager has said that he did not know about the distribution of contraceptives until 2013, and then acted immediately to close down the projects. He told La Stampa: “Two of these projects could be stopped immediately. The third project concerned the northern Myanmar … If we had closed the project immediately, we would have left the entire region without health services. Therefore, the board of Malteser International decided to set up an ethical committee, led by Bishop of Troyes, France – Marc Stenger, to decide what to do.”

The report’s other findings include:

  • Boeselager knew about the distribution of condoms in November 2013. However, he did not inform the Grand Master or Sovereign Council of the Order. They only found out by accident in October 2014, nearly a year later.
  • After MI found out about the distribution of contraceptives, they adopted new guidelines, titled “Bioethics – Basic Principles”. But the report found that these guidelines were “inconsistent with the Church’s teaching”. MI’s stated policy, as late as January 2016, was that if people could not practice NFP, “other contraceptive methods, their indications and possible contra indications could be discussed with the couple and provided if the person/couple clearly express their wish to use them.”

Meanwhile, publicly available documents, posted online, show that MI were aware of contraception being approved by local projects, possibly as early as 2006:

  • In MI’s 2009 training document, with a foreword by Secretary General Ingo Radtke, MI workers were encouraged to help 15-24-year-olds “correctly identify the two major ways of preventing the sexual transmission of HIV (using condoms and limiting sex to one faithful, uninfected partner).”
  • In MI’s 2006 annual report, whose editorial was again written by Radtke, a case study described how a woman was helped by an MI project: “Eunice … discussed contraception methods with her husband to prevent the virus being transmitted.”

The Catholic Herald asked representatives of Boeselager and the Order of Malta about what procedures had been in place to check whether MI’s projects were in line with Church teaching. Eugenio Ajroldi di Robbiate, the Order of Malta’s director of communications, replied: “The issue of the distribution of contraceptives in three projects of Malteser International has been addressed by the Order of Malta and by Albrecht Boeselager on numerous occasions. The projects in question had been initiated at a local level without the knowledge of Malteser International Headquarters in Cologne nor of the Government of the Order of Malta in Rome.

“Boeselager found out about the distribution in November 2013. Once discovered, two of these projects were closed. The third one could not be closed immediately because this was part of the funding programme granted to Malteser International. Closing it immediately, would have meant leaving an extremely impoverished region in North Myanmar without access to basic health services.”

Asked why Boeselager did not inform the Sovereign Council of this matter, over the course of a year, di Robbiate said: “This issue was never concealed to the Grand Master nor to the members of the Sovereign Council. The responsibility in this case rests with the board of Malteser International. Malteser International is a foundation created in accordance with German law. It is managed by a director, a deputy and a board, and works through the many Associations in the various countries where the Order operates. The Grand Hospitaller’s position, which Albrecht Boeselager covered at the time, is not involved in the operations. Its task is to supervise, but it is not on the command line.”

Di Robbiate also commented on the report’s conclusion that MI’s policy guidelines were “inconsistent” with Church teaching, even as late as 2016. He said: “As the humanitarian aid agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta, Malteser International is a Catholic organisation. The staff has always been trained on the basis of the teaching of the Catholic Church. After 2015, the guidelines and procedures have been reinforced to avoid any inconsistency with the Church doctrine.”