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Knights of Malta head quits amid row over condom programme

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Grand Master Matthew Festing quit after Pope Francis asked him to step down on Tuesday

The head of the Knights of Malta has resigned after becoming embroiled in a public dispute with the Pope over a condom distribution programme.

Grand master Matthew Festing, 67, had refused to cooperate with a Vatican inquiry into why he sacked the ancient Catholic order’s grand chancellor.

Albrecht von Boeselager was dismissed over the condom programme last month.

It followed revelations that the Knights’ charity branch had distributed thousands of condoms in Myanmar.

The Roman Catholic Church forbids the use of artificial contraception, although the Pope advocates tolerance in how this is enforced.

Pope Francis asked Mr Festing to step down at a meeting on Tuesday.

“The Pope asked him to resign and he agreed,” a Knights of Malta spokesman said.

He added that the next step was a formality in which the group’s Sovereign Council would have to sign off on the unusual resignation.

The 900-year-old order will be run by its number two, or grand commander, until a new head is elected.

Mr Boeselager has said he did not know about the condom distribution programme, which was an anti-HIV and family planning initiative, and stopped it when he learned of its existence.


What is the Order of Malta?

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Reuters

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The Order of the Knights of Malta also has many female members

The Sovereign Order of Malta traces its history to the 11th Century, with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for pilgrims of all faiths.

The lay religious order of the Roman Catholic Church now has 13,500 members and 100,000 staff and volunteers, who provide healthcare in hospitals and clinics around the world.

The Order of Malta enjoys many of the privileges of a nation state. It issues its own stamps, passports and licence plates – and holds diplomatic relations with 106 states, the Holy See included.

Though the order sounds like a masculine institution, the Knights are not exclusively male. As of 2013, women made up about 30% of its members – known as the Dames.

The group is reportedly keen to shed its aristocratic image, and to attract new talent to continue its humanitarian work.

The BBC’s David Willey gave his impressions of the Knights’ headquarters during the order’s 900th anniversary.


The order had previously called the Pope’s review a legally “irrelevant” move aimed at limiting its sovereignty.

Pope Francis appointed a five-member commission to investigate the sacking in December, amid evidence that his own envoy to the group, conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke, had helped engineer it without his blessing.

The order said it had been an attempt to discredit members of the commission, but the Vatican ordered and ordered the leaders of the Knights of Malta to cooperate with the inquiry.

The papal commission was due to deliver its findings to the Pope at the end of the month.

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