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Knights of Malta Head Resigns in Spat with Pope over Condom Scandal

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The head of the Knights of Malta has resigned after a public spat with Pope Francis over the ouster of a top official involved in a condom scandal.

Matthew Festing met with the pope offered his resignation, Marianna Balfour, a spokeswoman for the ancient lay Catholic order, confirmed Wednesday.

Festing had refused to cooperate with a papal commission investigating his ouster of the grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, over revelations that the order's charity branch had distributed condoms. Festing had cited the Knights' status as a sovereign entity in refusing to cooperate.

Image: Pope Francis meets Robert Festing in this June, 2016 file photo.
Pope Francis meets Robert Festing in this June, 2016 file photo. (C) POOL New / Reuters / Reuters

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.

The remarkable showdown is the latest example of Francis clashing with more conservative elements in the Catholic Church, especially those for whom sexual ethics and doctrinal orthodoxy are paramount. In a Jan. 17 statement, the Vatican called the issue a "crisis of the central direction" of the Knights of Malta.

Festing suspended Boeselager on Dec. 8 over revelations that the Knights' charity branch had distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Myanmar under his watch.

Church teaching forbids artificial contraception. Boeselager has said he stopped the programs 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 Festing and resign.

Francis appointed a commission to investigate after Boeselager said he had been told by Festing 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.

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In a Jan. 14 letter, Festing 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 Knights had a financial interest and therefore couldn't be trusted to address the spat objectively.

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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. Festing 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 U.N. envoy to the U.N. in Geneva.

In its Jan. 17 statement, the Vatican hinted that it plans to take measures based on the commission's final report — a move that could rile the Knights' 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.