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Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager Grand Chancellor of the Sovereign Order of Malta attends a news conference in Rome, Italy February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

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By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - The Order of Malta, the ancient Catholic order of knights which is now a worldwide charity, on Thursday sought to reassure members and donors that a recent showdown between its former leader and the Vatican had not weakened its loyalty to the pope.

At the same time, senior members of the Order, which was founded in 1038, acknowledged that the highly public clash led by its former top Knight, Grand Master Matthew Festing, had hurt donations.

Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager, the Grand Chancellor of the aristocratic order, was reinstated last Saturday. He had been fired in December by Festing, who accused von Boeselager of turning a blind eye to the use of condoms in aid projects in the developing world.

"The order reaffirms its loyalty to the Holy Father. Let me reassure our members and everybody that the government of the order is and will remain at the service of the Holy Father. Our devotion to the teachings of the Church is irrevocable and beyond question," von Boselager told a news conference.

Festing, backed by conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke, had stood up to the pope, saying the pontiff, who pushed for von Boselager's reinstatement, could not intervene in the internal affairs of the Rome-based institution that has sovereign status and is run like a small country.

Festing lost his battle with the Vatican, which said the condom issue was just an excuse by Festing and Burke to wield more power. Von Boselager has said he shut down the programs that distributed condoms as soon as he could after he found out.

"What the order has experienced was a government crisis brought about by an act illegal under the constitution. We are grateful for the Holy Father to have provided guidance that led to a swift solution," von Boselager said.

The future role of Burke, the institution's "patron," or chaplain, who has openly challenged the pope on a host of doctrinal issues, was not clear.

The pope is due to name his own delegate to help run the order until a new Grand Master can be elected in several months. Von Boselager said the delegate will be the only interlocutor with the Vatican, effectively side-lining Burke.

Von Boselager would not comment on Burke, except to say that Festing had been "ill advised" in his attempt to take on the pope.

The all-male top leaders of the Knights of Malta are not clerics, but they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope.

Dominique Prince de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, the Order's health minister, said the crisis had led to a drop in donations, including a fall of about 30,000 euros in a recent fundraising campaign in France.

He said leaders of the Order, which counts some 13,000 members, 80,000 volunteers and about 25,000 paid employees, mostly medical staff, would have to work hard to regain lost trust.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Reuters