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 Andrew Medichini

ROME, May 1, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Leaked documents from the Knights of Malta reveal a high-ranking staff member in the Order's charitable arm pointing to Pope Francis to justify distributing condoms in poor countries.

In an email dated November 14, 2013, Birke Herzbruch, who worked for Malteser International (MI) as a representative to Myanmar, defended the use of condoms to her superior. 

“I cannot believe that HQ [headquarters] is so resistant as not to see the writings on the wall of the new pope who publicly stated that condoms are permissible when it comes to HIV prevention. Why should Malteser be more catholic than the Holy Mother Church itself,” she wrote in an email to Maren Paech, Malteser International’s Country Group Manager for Myanmar/Thailand. 

The communication was made eight months after Francis' election as Pope. 

It is unclear what statement of Pope Francis regarding condoms Herzbruch was referring to in her email. The Pope has never publicly stated, as suggested by Herzbruch, that “condoms are permissible.” And by the time of her e-mail in November 2013, he doesn't appear to have made public comments that would be open to that interpretation. Since, however, he has made remarks that leave his position on contraceptive practices rather unclear.

In a March 2014 interview with Corriere della Sera, Francis said that the question of birth control must be answered not by “changing the doctrine” but by “making pastoral (ministry) take into account the situations and that which it is possible for people to do.”

During a November 2015 press conference on his return flight from Africa, Francis, when asked if it was time for the Church to allow the use of condoms to prevent HIV, agreed that condom use is “one of the methods,” but that it brought into conflict the fifth and sixth commandments. 

During his February 2016 return flight from Mexico, Francis said that contraception may be the “lesser of two evils” for parents wanting to avoid conceiving a child in areas affected by the Zika virus. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi confirmed the pope’s words the following day, stating: “The contraceptive or condom, in particular cases of emergency or gravity, could be the object of ‘discernment’ in a serious case of conscience. This is what the Pope said.”

According to Herzbruch in the leaked document, Malteser International “believes” that condoms are part of a “comprehensive HIV package.” She wrote: “In this sense Prevention through condoms is mandatory and not negotiable.”

“Also prevention starts with the FSW [Female Sex Worker], this is where the circle of infection starts,” she wrote. 

Herzbruch also revealed in the leaked email that condoms were currently being distributed through MI in partnership with Population Services International as well as the Three Millennium Development Goal Fund.

Herzbruch began working with MI in 1999 as an emergency coordinator in the Middle East. She then worked her way up the ranks, moving from “country coordinator” to “country representative.” From June 2011 to December 2013 she was MI’s country representative to Myanmar. Her employment with MI appears to have ended in December 2013, one month after the date of the above email communication. 

The scandal caused by the Knights of Malta distributing condoms through its charitable arm exploded publicly at the end of 2016. That’s when the Order’s Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing ordered Grand Chancellor Albrecht von Boeselager to resign from his position. It was Boeselager who oversaw MI and who was ultimately responsible for approving the projects that not only distributed condoms and contraceptive pills, but abortifacient pills as well. 

But Boeselager refused to step down, forcing Festing to exert his position to entirely remove him from the Order. 

Then, in a series of surprise moves, Pope Francis demanded that Festing resign from his position, which he did, and went on to reinstate the official dismissed for peddling contraception. The move was surprising given that the Knights of Malta is a sovereign entity and has no official connection to the Pope or the Vatican.

The imbroglio spilled over to the Knights’ Patron, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was stripped by the Pope of his function, but not his title. The Pope then appointed Archbishop Angelo Becciu as his new delegate to the Order.

Grassroots members of the Knights are now directly petitioning the Pope to give them a “reasonable explanation” for his meddling with their sovereign Order. 

They say they want answers to “serious questions and misgivings” that have arisen after Francis reinstated the ousted condom promoter, forced the Order’s head to resign, and effectively removed their patron from his post.

“The recent unfolding of serious events that have taken place over the past months regarding the Order of Malta have left many in perplexity,” the petition states.

“This has been exacerbated by the lack of reasonable explanation presented both to the faithful members of the Order and the public at large regarding actions taken by Your Holiness and Vatican officials,” it adds.

The concern of grassroots members is also shared by Cardinal Burke, who in an interview with a member of the Knights of Malta last month said that he was profoundly saddened to see current leadership in the Order trying to minimize and forget the contraceptive scandal. The interview, which was intended for internal use within the Order, was part of a number of confidential documents that were recently leaked to the public by an anonymous source within the Order. 

“I find it profoundly saddening that the grave scandal of the distribution of contraceptives and the advancing secularization of the Order which this immoral action represents are now minimized and, effectively, forgotten,” Burke said in the interview. 

“All of the many press conferences, interviews, and other interventions through the media on the part of the Order, in the time since the reinstatement of the Grand Chancellor, make no reference to the grave scandal and acknowledge no responsibility on the part of the Grand Chancellor for such scandal.”

“From my view, I fear that the obscuring of this scandalous situation at the root of the recent difficulties in the Order is not a good augury for the renewal of the Order, according to its long, noble, and thoroughly Catholic tradition,” he said. 

The leaked documents came days before the April 29 vote in Rome where the Knights of Malta elected Fra Giacomo Dalla Torre for a one-year term.

One of Dalla Torre’s focuses during the coming year will be the reform the Order's Constitution.

“The recent crisis has brought to light some weaknesses in the systems of control and in the balance of governance,” the Order stated in a press release, adding that “the reform will take this into account.”