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Knights of Malta elect new leader

April 29, 2017

The Knights of Malta have elected Giacomo Dalla Torre as their new temporary leader. His predecessor, Britain's Matthew Festing, resigned in January after a quarrel with Pope Francis over distributing condoms.

Italien Malteserorden- Auswahl des neuen Großmeisters
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Tarantino

Amid lingering tensions with the Vatican, some 56 knights, known as the Council Complete of State, elected Giacomo Dalla Torre as the Knights of Malta's Grand Master. The closed-door poll took place Saturday on the Aventine Hill, one of Rome's most scenic spots.

Torre was given the title of lieutenant of the grand master. He had been the grand prior in charge of the order's Rome chapter.

Torre's predecessor as leader of the ancient Catholic order, Matthew Festing, was forced out by Pope Francis after he resisted a papal investigation into his dismissal of a senior deputy over the distribution of condoms in Myanmar.

Sanguinetto neuer Großmeister beim Malteserorden
Giacomo Dalla Torre will initially lead the Knights of Malta for a yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Malta Knights/Damiano Rosa

Festing ignored a request from Archbiship Angelo Becciu, who is temporarily running the Order, to stay away from Rome during the election process.

The condoms controversy

Grand masters of the Knights of Malta usually hold the position for life, but the disagreement over the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, and the controversy following the removal of Knights' Grand Chancellor Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager for allowing the distribution of condoms in the Order's humanitarian aid agency pushed Pope Francis into action. Boeselager was later reinstated, which added fuel to the feud between Festing and the Vatican.

Vatikan Robert Matthew Festing bei Papst Franziskus
Matthew Festing was forced out by Pope Francis in JanuaryImage: picture alliance/dpa/G. Bouys

Festing claimed in a leaked letter that three Vatican appointees had a conflict of interest due to links to a Geneva-based fund the Order also had a stake in. It appears the defiance of papal authority was the final straw.

Von Boeselager was health minister of the order when the Malteser International was found to have distributed condoms in Myanmar under his watch. The Catholic Church forbids the use of condoms or other forms of artificial contraception.

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Von Boeselager said he shut down two programs in Myanmar but kept a third going as it was the only supplier of basic medical services for needy people.

Liberals vs. conservatives

Von Boeselager's dismissal was seen as being due to him being too liberal for Cardinal Raymond Burke, a conservative figure from the United States at the Vatican. Burke has been outspoken in his views, which directly contrast with Pope Francis. Francis, as well as his predecessor, Benedict XVI, said the use of condoms to preserve life is acceptable in AIDS-ravaged communities.

The Knights of Malta was founded in Jerusalem in 1048 as a community of hospitals. It was recognized by the pope in 1113, it now operates in 120 countries with 13,500 members and 100,000 employees and volunteers. It is at once a religious order made up mostly of non-clerics, a chivalric order and a sovereign entity that is run like a small monarchy and recognized by 106 states.

shs/sms (AFP, dpa)