“There is a new turn in the criminal mystery story concerning the Order of Malta and its current Grand Chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager.” So begins a story today at the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net*. “Boeselager,” the report continues, “had started legal proceedings against the Catholic internet newspaper kath.net. The district court of Hamburg has decided in the decisive point that the compelling impression from this article – namely, that Albrecht von Boeselager ‘is himself responsible for the above-mentioned accusations, which necessarily also include his knowledge of all relevant circumstances’ – is true.”
Readers will recall that in November, 2014, Cardinal Raymond Burke was removed from his position as Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura — the Church’s highest canonical court — and re-assigned as Cardinal Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. As we reported in our synopsis of the Knights of Malta story in January, 2017:
Somewhere around the same time — near the end of 2014 — the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Fra’ Matthew Festing, was made aware of charges of impropriety in the conduct of one of his senior officers, Albrecht von Boeselager — this according to the National Catholic Register‘s Edward Pentin. Boeselager, then the Grand Chancellor of the Knights of Malta, had for decades overseen Malteser International — the “worldwide humanitarian relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta” — in his previous position as Grand Hospitaller, a post he held from 1989-2014. During his tenure, it had been alleged, Malteser International had been involved in the distribution of thousands of condoms and oral contraceptives through some of their international programs.
On November 10, 2016, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Patronus of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, met with Pope Francis in a private audience to discuss these allegations. According to Pentin,
During that meeting … the Pope was “deeply disturbed” by what the cardinal told him about the contraceptive distribution. The Pope also made it clear to Cardinal Burke that he wanted Freemasonry “cleaned out” from the order, and he demanded appropriate action. [emphasis added]
What followed was a major power struggle within the Order — with external pressures applied by the Vatican itself — resulting first in the removal of von Boeselager from the Order (and thus, his position on the Sovereign Council) in December, 2016, by direct action of the Order’s then-Grand Commander, Fra’ Matthew Festing. This did not sit well, however, with the Holy See, and on January 24, 2017, Festing was called to a private meeting with Pope Francis in which he was asked by the pope to resign. He agreed. According to Pentin, “the Pope then had Fra’ Festing include in his letter of resignation that the Grand Master had asked for Boeselager’s dismissal under the influence of Cardinal Raymond Burke, the patron of the Order.” (It is noteworthy that by January, word of the dubia, of which Cardinal Burke was the most visible signatory, had already spread around the world.) On January 28, 2017, the Order’s Sovereign Council officially accepted Festing’s resignation, and “annulled the decrees establishing the disciplinary procedures against Albrecht Boeselager and the suspension of his membership in the Order.” Albrecht von Boeselager was thus immediately reinstated — through the intervention of Pope Francis and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin — the same day Festing’s resignation was made official.
And it didn’t end there. By February of 2017, Cardinal Burke — alleged to have been falsely implicated in Festing’s resignation letter at the pope’s request — found himself again in the crosshairs. The Order’s Grand Commander (and, at the time, acting Grand Master), Fra’ Ludwig Hoffman von Rumerstein, claimed in an interview that it was Burke who had personally requested the resignation of von Boeselager — an allegation Burke described as “calumny”. Nevertheless, though Burke retained his titular role as Cardinal Patron of the Order, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the pope’s delegate to the order, was announced by the newly-reinstated von Boeselager as having “the full confidence of the Pope and is his spokesman.” Von Boeselager went on to say, “That means that Cardinal Burke as Cardinal Patron of the Order is now de facto suspended.”
When new elections were held in Rome in April, 2017, they provided the Order with a temporary government after the election of Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre as Lietenant of the Grand Master — an interim leadership position for the period of one year. As we reported at the time:
During that year, the Vatican plans to reform the Order fundamentally, including changes to the governance requirements that would open the role of Grand Master to those not among the ranks of the professed Knights (who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience), but instead from a larger pool of candidates within the Order.
One of the lesser-known aspects of this troubling saga in the thousand-year-old chivalric order was the use of legal threats on the part of certain parties to silence the Catholic Press in their coverage of some of the unflattering details of this story. In March, 2017, the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net received the aforementioned cease-and-desist order for their reporting on Albrecht von Boeselager’s financial dealings in his role of Grand Chancellor of the Order. From their own report on the action at the time:
This week, kath.net has been confronted with a judicial cease-and-desist order initiated by the Order of Malta, and this was done with regard to a report of the BILDnewspaper. The BILD newspaper had reported that Grand Chancellor Boeselager accepted a donation of 30 million Swiss Francs, the origin of which is dubious; kath.net merely quoted from the report of the BILD newspaper.
A spicy detail: the BILD newspaper itself has so far not been confronted with possible legal actions because of its report, as Kath.net was able to learn after contacting the newspaper. The editor of Kath.net, Roland Noé, interprets this as an intentional “strategy of intimidation” against Catholic media. It started already at the end of 2016, when Kath.net reported in an article about the distribution of condoms by some charitable organizations of the Order of Malta. Also in that case, there then came an immediate letter from a lawyer and, subsequently, an injunction and restraining order. Juridical steps on the side of Kath.net are currently being considered as well. The possibilty to publish a statement, as offered by Kath.net, has not been accepted [by the other side]; a direct communication without a laywer — as is the usual procedure among Christians — has so far also not yet been accepted by the responsible persons of the Order of Malta.
Now, with this week’s ruling by the Hamburg court, it appears that a critical blow may have been struck against attempts to control the public narrative about what has transpired within the Order in the past few years — and in particular, since December, 2016. From today’s story at kath.net:
The court thus has recognized the fact that Malteser International continued this aid program for a couple of months still after the distribution of relief goods together with condoms in one project in Myanmar had become public, and that this happened also with the knowledge and willingness of Mr. von Boeselager. With this decision, the interim injunction – which Boeselager issued after the publication of a report of kath.net – has been rescinded in the decisive point.
With the court order of Hamburg, now this development of events is de facto being called into question. Was the pope wrongly informed? Was Festing right and thus unjustly forced to resign? Is Boeselager as Grand Chancellor of a Catholic order still tenable?
In the judgment of the Hamburg court, which was sent to kath.net this week in a written form, it is now written, with reference to a December 2016 article of kath.net, against which Boeselager had legally intervened: “The whole third paragraph of the article deals critically with different aspects of the work of the claimant (Editor: Albrecht von Boeselager!) as Hospitaller, in order to prove the thesis which was stated at the beginning, namely, that a small circle from the German-speaking realm wants to preserve the advantages of the exclusivity and sovereignty [of the Maltese Order], but wishes to loosen the bonds to Catholic teaching and to the pope, which are in its [the group’s] eyes too tight. For the reader, the compelling conclusion is, in the conviction of the chamber [of the court], that the claimant is himself responsible for all above-mentioned accusations, which necessarily also involves his knowledge of all the relevant circumstances. This impression however is to be regarded as procedurally true, after the result of this opposition hearing.”
Boeselager, on the contrary, had publicly and also in court argued that he had no immediate operative influence upon the aid program of Malteser International and that the events were not in the realm of his responsibility, and that he, as soon as he learned of the abuse, nevertheless acted immediately to stop it. It is notable that, in the meantime, all statements and links with regard to the matter have disappeared from the official homepage of the Order of Malta in Rome.
It is impossible to say how the story will develop from here, but it seems far from over.
(*Translation by Maike Hickson)
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.