The interim leader of the Knights of Malta has revealed that it was primarily U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke who touched off the recent monthslong dispute between the prestigious lay order and the Vatican.
In an interview with an Austrian newspaper Tuesday, Ludwig Hoffmann von Rumerstein said it was Burke, and not the order's leader at the time, who demanded the resignation of the group's grand chancellor, Albrecht von Boeselager, at a Dec. 6 meeting.
Asked by the interviewer what the cardinal said afterwards, Hoffmann von Rumerstein responded: "He was certainly indignant and shook his head, that one can say. He expected Boeselager to declare his resignation."
Hoffmann von Rumerstein has served as the Lieutenant ad interim of the Knights of Malta since Jan. 27, when the resignation of the group's Grand Master, Matthew Festing, went into effect. Burke serves as the order's spiritual patron, a position to which Pope Francis appointed him.
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The order's firing of von Boeselager sparked a two-month dispute between the group and the Vatican, with Francis creating a commission to investigate the firing and Festing originally pledging non-cooperation with that commission, saying it did not respect his group's historic status as a sovereign entity.
Festing then resigned as the head of the order Jan. 25, following a meeting with the pope the previous day.
Hoffmann von Rumerstein's interview is significant in that it reveals for the first time that it was Burke, and not Festing, who had asked for Boeselager's resignation. In his role as spiritual patron, Burke does not have a formal role in governance of the order.
In the interview, Hoffmann von Rumerstein expresses doubt that Burke's Dec. 6 action was legal according to the order's own constitution and laws.
"We are elected and have a responsibility towards the General Chapter," he said, referring to a governance meeting the order's leadership holds every five years. "It is therefore doubtful whether the Cardinal Patron can even say, 'You must resign.' One would have to go back to the General Chapter."
While Francis has to this point left Burke in place as the Knights' patron, he has also appointed a new special delegate to the order, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, saying Becciu will be his "sole spokesperson" to the group.
Burke is currently on the island of Guam, where he is presiding over a church trial investigating allegations of sexual abuse against the island's former archbishop.
After the original publication of this story, the cardinal issued a statement disputing Hoffmann von Rumerstein's account and said it was "not accurate."
"I had no authority to ask the Grand Chancellor to resign," Burke told the National Catholic Register. "To be frank, I am stunned by what Hoffmann von Rumerstein states."
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac. Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, Austrian correspondent for The Tablet, contributed to this report.]