VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Francis launched an investigation Thursday into the ouster of a top official at the Order of Malta, the ancient aristocratic religious order, amid evidence that Francis' own envoy, Cardinal Raymond Burke, to the group engineered the removal without his blessing over a years-old condom scandal.
Albrecht von Boeselager, a high-ranking official in the order for three decades, was removed as grand chancellor Dec. 8 after he refused to resign.
One charge against him concerned a program that the order's Malteser International aid group had worked several years ago with other aid groups to help sex slaves in Myanmar. The trafficked women had been forced to work as prostitutes and were given condoms to protect themselves from AIDS, two people familiar with the case said.
An internal investigation was conducted and von Boeselager admitted he knew about the condoms, which were distributed by other aid programs, not his. The Vatican was informed, Malteser International's participation in the program ended and an ethics committee was launched to ensure that future projects adhered to Catholic Church teaching, the officials said.
Church teaching opposes artificial contraception. However, some Catholic priests and nuns in Africa and elsewhere have condoned the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. Francis himself has said that "avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil" when, for example, women are at risk of the Zika virus.
In a statement, von Boeselager said he had been asked to resign during a Dec. 6 meeting attended by Francis' ambassador to the order, the conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke. During the meeting, the order's grand master indicated that the request to resign "was in accordance with the wishes of the Holy See."
However, no such request was ever made. Von Boeselager said since his ouster, the Holy See has written to the order "confirming that such a wish was never raised."
By naming an independent commission to look into the case, Francis appears to be seeking an objective assessment of von Boeselager and his ouster without the input of Burke, who has been among Francis' fiercest critics.
Burke is one of four cardinals who have publicly questioned Francis' flexible approach to whether civilly remarried Catholics can receive Communion. Burke is a hard-liner on the issue, as well as on the absolute prohibition on the use of artificial contraception.
Burke, a Richland Center native, served as Bishop for the Diocese of La Crosse from 1995-2003.
Francis removed him as the Vatican's supreme court justice in 2014 and named him to be the patron of the Order of Malta, an ancient Catholic order that runs hospitals and clinics around the world and has an army of volunteers who respond to natural disasters and war zones.
Burke had conveyed to the Order of Malta's governing council on Dec. 6 that Francis wanted von Boeselager to resign, the two people familiar with the case said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak about internal meetings.
Burke warned that if von Boeselager wasn't removed, the Vatican would take over the order's properties, they said.
On Dec. 15, a new grand chancellor was elected, John Edward Critien.
In his statement, von Boeselager said he still considers himself the duly elected grand chancellor, albeit one who has been impeded from doing his job because of an ouster that violated the order's legal norms on several fronts. He said he has always felt bound by the teachings of the church and rejected the "liberal" label that his opponents have given him.
"To contrive an accusation that I do not acknowledge the church's teaching on sexuality and the family, based on the sequence of events in the Malteser International Myanmar project, is absurd," the statement said.
The pope's five-member commission of inquiry is made up of Order of Malta members who have close ties to the German-born von Boeselager. Francis also named a trusted Jesuit canon lawyer as a member.
The knights trace their history to the 11th century with the establishment of an infirmary in Jerusalem that cared for people of all faiths making pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
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