The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is one of the more improbable success stories of the 21st-century Church. Founded in 1099 to provide hospital care and military defence in the Holy Land, it has retained much of its medieval tradition and ceremony. But it has also, by gradual reform, become a powerhouse of international aid. More than 100,000 members, medical staff and volunteers are offering practically every form of charitable assistance around the world, from handing out sandwiches to the homeless in Britain, to running Aids clinics in Africa, to rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.

The order attributes this vast network in large part to its sovereign status. Thanks to its diplomatic links with more than 100 countries, it often has access to places that other agencies cannot reach.

It is a religious order, some of whose knights take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But the order also values its independent sovereignty, which it has jealously guarded. In the early 1950s, when Cardinal Nicola Canali tried to bring the order more under the sway of the Vatican, the knights successfully resisted what they saw as a power grab. Since then Rome has mostly let the order get on with things – right up until last month.

The crisis was brought about by the dismissal of Albrecht von Boeselager, the order’s Grand Chancellor (number three). Boeselager’s previous job was running the order’s humanitarian arm, Malteser International. A few Malteser projects had been handing out condoms – since 2005, according to the watchdog the Lepanto Institute. The order says that Boeselager had known about this since at least 2013 and had failed to respond properly. Moreover, it alleges, he had concealed the problem from his superiors. Boeselager denies this, saying he acted as soon as he knew about it.

This would have remained an internal matter, except that Pope Francis himself became involved. On November 10, he had a meeting with the order’s patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who serves as an intermediary between the Vatican and the order. At the beginning of December, according to sources within the order, the Pope wrote Cardinal Burke a letter asking the order to take action against any possible cause of moral scandal. The exact content of the letter is unknown; but it was universally taken as a reference to the Boeselager situation.

I’m told that the mood at the Order of Malta’s headquarters was largely one of relief. The issue of Boeselager’s alleged wrongdoing had dragged on for some time without resolution. The German aristocrat has been as much part of the Order of Malta community as anyone. His late father Philipp, who took part in the July Plot which narrowly failed to assassinate Hitler, is one of the order’s most celebrated members. And Albrecht, like his father, has given his life to the order. This was a delicate situation for an organisation that often works more like a family than a bureaucracy.

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