The Knights of Malta’s chaplain, the pope’s arch-critic American Cardinal Raymond Burke, not its Grand Master, was the one who asked the order’s Grand Chancellor to resign, according to the Knights’ acting head.

Ludwing Hoffmann von Rumerstein, who is Austrian, was present at a meeting on December 6 in which the Grand Chancellor, Albrecht Von Boeselager, was asked to stand down. His refusal and eventual sacking on grounds of disobedience led to a weeks’ long row with the Vatican, who demanded he be reinstated.

The Order’s Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, eventually resigned on January 24. The Sovereign Council reinstated Boeselager and named Hoffmann von Rumerstein the Knights’ Lieutenant ad interim. 

The pretext for Boeselager’s sacking was that the German reformer had years earlier been in charge of the order’s humanitarian arm, Malteser International, which for a time funded organizations that used condoms in Aids prevention projects among the very poor.

The issue had long since been investigated and Boeselager cleared, but Burke had been given or had commissioned a report by a traditionalist institute in New York that provided fresh evidence.

Journalists’ accounts that sourced the cardinal have described Festing asking the German to resign, while Burke sat silently present. Burke has elsewhere denied Boeselager’s account that the cardinal invoked the pope’s authority for the dismissal.

But in an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Hoffman-Rumerstein presents a very different picture.

“The conversation took place in a normal conversation form,” he told the Austrian daily Der Standard. “Boeselager said no to Cardinal Burke’s call for him to stand down. And I followed the cardinal to the car.”

Asked for the cardinal’s reaction, Hoffman-Rumerstein said: “He shook his head. He was displeased, one could say. He would have expected Boeselager to resign.”

Later in the interview, Rumerstein confirms that the December 6 meeting “was actually a conversation between Cardinal Burke and Boeselager.”

Sources in the order have long insisted that the cardinal was behind the dismissal, but until now no one has claimed on the record that Burke actually made the request.

The revelation will also prompt fresh questions about statements made by the order in December in response to letters from the secretary of state calling for Boeselager to be reinstated.

The statements, which insisted that the Order of Malta was sovereign and had no need to give an account of itself to the pope, are said to have been at Burke’s instigation.

But if Hoffmann-Rumerstein’s account is accurate, it was Burke, not the pope, who may have violated the Knights’ sovereignty: a decision to sack a member of the Sovereign Council can only be made by the order’s General Chapter, not by the pope’s chaplain, or patronus, who represents the Holy See.

Hoffmann-Rumerstein tells Der Standard that the members of the Sovereign Council have been elected by the General Chapter and can only be removed with its consent — which would suggest that Burke’s actions were illegal according to the order’s own constitution, as Boeselager insisted at the time.

“The members of the General Chapter elected us. There are doubts as to whether the Cardinal Patron [Burke] can ever say ‘You have to resign.’ One would have to go back to the General Chapter.”

Hoffmann-Rumerstein described as “nonsense” the notion that in calling for Boeselager’s reinstatement and sending a papal legate to oversee changes in the order, the Vatican had in any way violated the order’s sovereignty.

“We are a religious lay order. Through the professed members, we are recognized as a full order, as there are many other orders in the Church. And, of course, we are fully subject to the Vatican regarding moral and religious questions … We are subordinate to the Catholic Church.”

On the pretext used to sack Boeselager, the use of condoms by Malteser-funded projects, the Lieutenant said it was “not surprising in an organization of this complexity and size” and that “the government was always informed and the right consequences were drawn.”

Hoffmann-Rumerstein also denied claims in two news reports of the Sovereign Council meeting on January 20 in which the order ratified Festing’s resignation made to Pope Francis a few days earlier.

He says he never heard Festing describe Pope Francis as his enemy, as reported by Christopher Lamb of The Tablet. He also disputed a report by Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register that there was a “handful” of votes against accepting Festing’s resignation.

Asked if the vote was unanimous, the Lieutenant said “it was neither the one nor the other,” adding that that “there are also people who do not want a unanimity, and therefore make a sign that it is not unanimous.”

Hoffmann-Rumerstein said the pope’s delegate, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, had been appointed “to help with the change of our religious order, especially in the adaptation to modern times.”

Among the changes will be an amendment to the constitution abolishing the requirement for the Grand Master to be of noble lineage extending back at least 150 years. “That will have to change,” Hoffmann-Rumerstein said.

He also said the number of those eligible for the post of Grand Master — currently only 12 — was too small, and an age limit needed to be introduced for the Grand Master.

“This was also a hint I got from the Vatican: Here you should change something,” he said, adding that the issue had been discussed in 1997 but no age limit had been set.

“Today, after twenty years, it is absolutely necessary,” he said, adding that in his view Grand Masters should resign at 80.

He said the changes will be made over the next two years, when the next general chapter will elect the new Grand Master.