News / World

Ousted Knights of Malta official takes case to order's court

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

Albrecht von Boeselager was removed Dec. 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 Myanmar under his watch. Catholic teaching forbids the use of artificial contraception.

In a statement Thursday, von Boeselager said that he filed an appeal with the Knights' tribunal Jan. 4. 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 No. 2 has said was an "unprecedented crisis" within the order. The leadership of the Knights, however, has refused to co-operate with the pope's probe, citing its status as a sovereign entity under international law.

Aside from the unusual clash between a Catholic order and the head of the Catholic Church, the case has drawn attention because of the role played by conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Burke is the pope's ambassador to the Knights, but he is also a Francis critic and hardliner on sexual ethics. Boeselager has said he was told, during a meeting attended by Burke, that the pope wanted him to resign as grand chancellor over the condom scandal.

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 license plates and holds diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.

But in a Dec. 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.