The Vatican responds to Knights of Malta's attempt to discredit the pope's investigation

Pope Francis speaks with Fra' Matthew Festing, the 79th prince and grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, during a private audience at the Vatican June 20. (CNS photo/Claudio Peri, pool via Reuters) (June 23, 2014) Pope Francis speaks with Fra' Matthew Festing, the 79th prince and grand master of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, during a private audience at the Vatican June 20. (CNS photo/Claudio Peri, pool via Reuters) (June 23, 2014)

The Vatican struck back Tuesday at the Knights of Malta, rejecting its attempt to discredit a Vatican-appointed commission investigating the ouster of a top official over a condom scandal.

In a sharply worded statement, the Holy See also said it plans to take action to resolve the dispute, setting the stage for one sovereign entity intervening in the internal affairs of another.

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The remarkable showdown is the latest example of Pope Francis clashing with more conservative elements in the Catholic Church, especially those for whom sexual ethics and doctrinal orthodoxy are paramount.

The Vatican said Tuesday it "reaffirms its confidence" in the commission appointed last month by Francis to investigate the ouster of Albrecht von Boeselager as the Knights of Malta's grand chancellor. The Vatican called the issue a "crisis of the central direction" of the ancient aristocratic lay Catholic order.

The Order's leader, Fra' Matthew Festing, suspended Boeselager on Dec. 8 over revelations that the Knights' charity branch had distributed thousands of condoms to poor people in Myanmar under his watch.

Church teaching forbids artificial contraception. Boeselager has said he stopped the programs when he learned of them. The order's leadership has said the scandal was grave and called it "disgraceful" that Boeselager refused an order to obey Festing and resign.

Francis appointed a commission to investigate after Boeselager said he had been told by Festing that the Holy See wanted him to resign over the scandal. The Vatican secretary of state has said the pope wanted nothing of the sort and wanted the dispute to be resolved through dialogue.

The order's leadership has already announced it won't cooperate with the pope's commission, citing its status as a sovereign entity under international law.

In a Jan. 14 letter, Festing questioned the credibility of the pope's commission, saying there were "serious accusations of a conflict of interest" involving three of its five members. The three, he wrote, were linked to a Geneva-based fund in which the Knights had a financial interest and therefore couldn't be trusted to address the spat objectively.

He didn't elaborate. The National Catholic Register has reported that three of the commission members were involved, along with Boeselager, in a $118 million bequest to the order. Festing has decided to launch an internal inquiry into the matter.

The commission is made up of a noted Jesuit canon lawyer, three members of the order said to be close to Boeselager, and the Vatican's former U.N. envoy to the U.N. in Geneva.

In its statement, the Vatican hinted that it plans to take measures based on the commission's final report — a move that could rile the Knights' over their sovereignty claim. The order is also a Catholic lay order and its leadership takes an oath of obedience to the pope.

The Vatican said it "counts on the complete cooperation of all in this sensitive stage" — an apparent reference to the order's refusal to cooperate.

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