Knights of Malta elect new leader as Vatican seeks to bury feud

Josephine McKenna
Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto  - AFP

The Knights of Malta elected a new leader in Rome on Saturday in a bid to end a bitter internal feud that led to Pope Francis’ personal intervention in the ancient Catholic chivalric order.

Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto was named lieutenant of the Grand Master, which means he will serve a one-year term instead of the customary life-long term of a full Grand Master. 

The 72-year-old Italian was chosen from 12 candidates by the order’s council in a secret ballot held at its grand 14th century Magistral Villa with panoramic views overlooking the Tiber River.

Dressed in traditional black robes with a white Maltese cross, 56 electors celebrated Mass in at the Church of St Mary of the Priory inside the villa’s sprawling gardens early on Saturday before marching solemnly to the villa to cast their ballot.

Former Grand Master Matthew Festing, second left, defied a Vatican order to stay away from yesterday's vote Credit:  FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP

Pope Francis was informed of the election, according to a statement. 

An expert in art and archeology, Mr Dalla Torre taught at Rome’s Pontifical Urban University and published several articles on medieval art. He previously served as the order’s lieutenant for an interim period after the death of Grand Master Andrew Bertie in 2008.

He is expected to act as a crisis manager charged with implementing radical reforms and "strengthening the spiritual life" of the nearly 1000 year old organization following the bitter confrontation between the previous British-born Grandmaster and his German deputy.

Matthew Festing, a Cambridge-educated former Guards officer, resigned in January after conflict with the Holy See over his removal of Albrecht von Boeselager, who was a senior deputy at the time.

Knights of Malta take part in the secret ballot for a new Grand Master at the order's Villa Magistrale in Rome Credit: Remo Casilli/Malta Knights via AP

He had accused Mr von Boeselager of condoning the distribution of condoms in an aid project in South-east Asia, in contravention of the Catholic order’s opposition to artificial contraception. 

But after weeks of mud-slinging, which drew in the Pope and the Vatican, German-born Mr von Boeselager, whose title is Grand Chancellor, was reinstated, in what was seen as a defeat for Mr Festing.

Mr Festing defied a Vatican order to stay away from yesterday's vote.

The pope met senior officials from the order at the Vatican late on Wednesday with Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the Vatican's deputy secretary of state, appointed "special delegate" to the order.

Reformers, backed by the Vatican, want to overhaul the order's constitution to make it more transparent.

Albrecht von Boeselager, second from right, walks in procession along with other Knights of Malta before the election of the new Grand Master Credit:  Alessandra Tarantino/AP

“The recent crisis has brought to light some weaknesses in control systems and the conduct of its governance: the reform will take this into account,” the order said in a statement following the election. 

“The reform will focus on the order's need to strengthen its spiritual life and to increase the number of its professed members.”

Founded nearly 1,000 years ago to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, the Knights of Malta is a Catholic charity that operates in 120 countries.

It is a sovereign entity which runs refugee camps, drug treatment centres, disaster relief programmes and clinics around the world. 

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