03 February 2017, The Tablet

Former Grand Master says knights’ drama 'not finished'

The Knights of Malta’s former leader has come out fighting saying the saga involving him, the Vatican and his leadership of the order is “by no means finished” 

Matthew Festing resigned as Grand Master last week after a meeting with Pope Francis, a move that signalled his capitulation in a very public battle between the knights and the Holy See. 

But speaking to The Tablet, Festing has stressed the complex dispute is far from over, raising the possibility of him trying to make a comeback as Grand Master or even a legal challenge to the validity of his resignation. 

"This is an extremely complex situation, it is extremely fluid, and by no means finished” he said in a brief telephone conversation. “Given all this it is not appropriate for me to say anymore.”

The former Grand Master resigned following a bitter dispute with the Vatican sparked by Festing’s sacking of his number three, Albrecht von Boeselager in a row about the distribution of condoms. The dismissal was backed by Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Order’s patron and prominent critic of Pope Francis, who claimed with Festing that the action was the wish of the Holy See. This turned out to be incorrect and following a Vatican investigation Festing stepped down and von Boeselager was reinstated. 

But the Holy See’s inquiry into the Order had earlier been rejected by the former Grand Master and his allies who said it could not be investigated on the grounds that it was a sovereign entity. 

Festing’s resignation was formally accepted by the Sovereign Council of the Order last Saturday in a meeting that he chaired where, according to sources inside the Order, he described the Pope as his “enemy.”

There had been doubts over whether the council would accept Festing’s decision to quit, and when votes were cast there were a handful who refused to accept the resignation. 

Speaking at a press conference yesterday Von Boeselager said the Pope had in “a pastoral way” asked Festing to “consider resignation” although stressed he did not have special knowledge of their private conversation. But if Festing was pressurised to resign as Grand Master it would raise questions about its validity as in Church law resignations must be undertaken freely.  

It has also been reported that Cardinal Burke spent around an hour trying to talk the former Grand Master out of resigning. 

The US cardinal, who has threatened to “formally correct” the Pope over allowing remarried divorcees to receive communion, was the driving force behind the German knight’s dismissal. 

“I think you know Cardinal Burke - his special attention was adhering to Church teaching,” Von Boeselager told journalists at the Foreign Press Club in Rome. 

The Cardinal pushed for action on the condoms distribution matter despite the order having conducted their own internal inquiry into the matter. But the dispute was re-opened when the Lepanto Institute, a self-appointed doctrinal watchdog based in the US, submitted a report on the matter to Cardinal Burke. 

Yesterday, the man in charge of the Knights’ charitable work, Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, said Lepanto had never contacted him in the course of their inquiries. 

Both he and Von Boeselager, who had previously run the Order’s global charity arm, stressed that when the Order was informed that condoms were being distributed they took action. 

Rochefoucauld-Montbel explained the condoms has been distributed in parts of Africa and in Myanmar where the knights were involved in a project designed to help prevent sexual slavery. 

“Principles have to be followed,” he explained. “But from time to time we are challenged, and we have to find a solution within the teaching of the Church. It isn’t always easy.”  

He also admitted that the saga had led to a drop in donations and in France, where they collect millions of pounds a year, there had been a decrease of around £25,800. 

“This has been troublesome for our donors,” Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel told journalists. “People decided not to help us because they thought we were fighting against the Pope. But it was not true. We need to restore the trust.”

Von Boeselager said Festing had been “ill advised” in his decisions and that the decision to sack him was illegal under the knights constitution. 

He said the priority of the Order now was to focus on its work serving the poor and the sick and in particular refugees, and when talking about the latter’s plight Von Boeselager appeared visibly moved as he made an impassioned request for journalists not to forget these humanitarian crises. 

The German knight, whose father Philippe was part of the famous Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler, said the Pope was focussed on reforming the religious aspect of the order, particularly of those fully professed knights who have taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.

This will be conducted by a papal delegate who will be Francis’ sole spokesman for matters regarding the order, a move which effectively leaves Cardinal Burke out of a job given that as patron his primary role is as the Pope’s representative to the knights.

According to the Order’s constitution elections for a new Grand Master, who is elected for life, must take place within three months of a resignation or death. But it is possible for an interim leader to be elected and for him to hold office for a year. 

Currently the only candidates eligible to be elected as Grand Master are those who have taken the full vows: they make up 55 out of the 13,500 knights. Reforms might allow this position to be open to knights in the rank below to which would make it possible for the likes of von Boeselager or Rochefoucauld-Montbel to be elected leader. 

The Vatican inquiry into the knights included hundreds of submissions, many of them critical of Festing’s leadership and raising concerns about the formation of the elite rank of fully professed knights. 

And on the former Grand Master’s watch a sex abuse scandal erupted in the UK when three senior members of the order failed to report concerns about Vernon Quaintance, a former sacristan for the Knights of Malta who was found guilty in 2014 of nine sex offences against children. 

While the three knights involved later apologised one of them, Duncan Gallie, was later made director of vocations by Festing and still serves on the Order’s Sovereign Council.

“Referring to Fra’ Duncan Gallie, it’s known that the perpetrator in question has been convicted and is serving or has served a sentence in jail,” von Boeselager said yesterday.

“He was serving also in the sacristy of the Order but fortunately no offences took place in the sacristy of the Order. An in-depth inquiry has been carried out by the Order which came to the conclusion there was a certain negligence on those in the order in charge of the sacristy.” 

He added that the mistakes were “not considered grave by the Grand Master”.

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