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Who knows? The Knights of Malta know

Penny Lernoux’s article, published in the National Catholic Reporter in 1989, depicts the behind-the-scenes activity of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Since then the swashbuckling Knights have been reigned in by successive popes, so that today their activities are more closely monitored by the Vatican and better directed to its goals.

The following is a slightly edited excerpt from People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism (1989), by Penny Lernoux. It was published in the National Catholic Reporter, 5 May 1989, pp. 9-10.

One of Catholicism’s oldest lay orders, the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta, better known as the Knights of Malta, or SMOM, is unique in several ways. Although it has no territory outside its headquarters in a Roman palazzo, it enjoys the status of a sovereign state, maintaining relations with 49 countries and issuing its own passports and stamps. Its 13,000 members include some of the world's most powerful figures, among them heads of state.

While it pledges allegiance to the pope, neither he nor the order's grand master in Rome has real control over SMOM’s various national associations, some of whose members have been involved in fascist plots and CIA covert wars. And while dedicated to charitable work, such as funding leprosariums and contributing medical supplies to the Third World, it also serves as an old-boys’ club for the European aristocracy* and the political right in the United States and Latin America.

SMOM was founded in the 11th century to provide medical aid and military protection for-pilgrims to the holy city of Jerusalem. The order’s knights participated in several important crusades, and gifts it received soon gave it control over extensive estates throughout Europe. The wealth of the knights’ grand priories greatly increased in the 14th century when they absorbed the estates belonging to the Knights Templar, whom they helped to destroy, and for a time they maintained control of the island of Rhodes.

Forced from Rhodes by Sultan Muhammad II in the 15th century, they eventually settled on the island of Malta, which gave the order its name. The Knights remained a major military presence in the Mediterranean until 1789, when Napoleon occupied Malta. After a brief sojourn in Russia, the order in 1834 established headquarters in Rome under papal protection.

By the end of the century, it had become a charitable organization of the aristocracy devoted to the care of the sick and the wounded. It maintained its exclusivity by refusing to accept members from Europe and Latin America who were not of the nobility or heads of state. In recent years the ruling has been relaxed for Latin America, but even as late as the 1940s the order refused to admit Eva Peron as a dame because of her proletarian background.

An exception was made for the United States because of its rising political, economic and military power, and in 1927 a branch of SMOM was established on the East Coast. Most of the founding members were tycoons of industry and finance who would strongly oppose Roosevelt’s New Deal.

They were soon joined by such titans as John Farrell, president of U.S. Steel; Joseph P. Grace, of W.R. Grace & Co.; Joseph Kennedy, a Boston entrepreneur and father of a future president of the United States; and George MacDonald of Pennsylvania, who made a fortune in oil and utilities.

MacDonald was typical of those who joined SMOM for the sheer fun of it. In recognition of generous contributions to the church, he was made a papal marquis as well as a grand master of the Knights, of Malta. MacDonald loved to dress up in the splashy Knights costume, with its ostrich-plumed hat, gold spurs and a uniform with gold epaulets, sashes and the medal with the Knights’ eight-pointed Maltese cross

Many of the approximately 1,500 Americans who subsequently joined the knighthood also enjoyed the rituals of induction at the local cathedral and the ceremonies in honor of the order’s patron, St. John. But for others, SMOM was more than pomp and circumstance ― it was a source of money and power.

Among the latter was New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, at one time the most powerful Catholic churchman in the United States. He became involved with the American branch of SMOM almost from its founding and was the order’s official church patron in the United States when he was auxiliary bishop of Boston. After he became archbishop of New York in 1939, he changed his title to “Grand Protector”.

Spellman enjoyed the support of the right wing of the curia, particularly Cardinal Nicola Canali, who dominated Vatican finances, and Canali authorized his monopoly over Knight appointments in the United States. The quid pro quo was that, instead of sending the American Knights’ contributions to SMOM headquarters in Rome, Spellman funneled the money into Canali's coffers. When SMOM’s grand master demanded an accounting from Spellman, he got no answer. No action was taken against Spellman, however, because at the time the order was fighting for its life against Canali, who wanted to gain control of its wealth. 

Spellman's financial contributions to the Vatican, his friendship with Pius XII and his access to U.S. economic and political elites, some of them Knights, gave him immense power, and by World War II he had become the Vatican's go-between with the White House and its proconsul in Latin America.

When Spruille Braden, U.S. ambassador to Colombia during the early 1940s, complained about the anti-American tone of a pastoral letter issued by Colombian Archbishop Ismael Perdomo, Spellman sent a personal emissary to Bogota to lecture Perdomo on the need for cooperation in the war effort. At this meeting, which took place in Braden’s presence, the archbishop was instructed to show Braden anything he wrote about the United States before releasing it. Braden was impressed. “It was good theater,” he said.

Spellman also played an important role as emissary between the White House and Rome as, for example, in relaying the pope's concern about Allied bombings of Italy. And he encouraged Vatican cooperation with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the CIA that was headed by his old friend General William (“Wild Bill”) Donovan.

Much of the European aristocracy that provided SMOM its membership was allied with the Falangist groups in Spain, the Catholic integralist ― Vichy French, the Italian fascists and the German-Austrian supporters of Hitler.

While they objected to Hitler’s attempts to create a Nordic system of belief in competition with the teachings of the Catholic church, some agreed with the Nazi's on the “Jewish question.”

For example, Franz von Papen, a Catholic aristocrat from the Westphalian nobility and Knight Magistral Grand Cross of SMOM, paved the way for Hitler’s assumption of power after von Papen became chancellor with the support of the Nazis.

During the war the Vatican’s position was ambivalent, not because Pius XII approved of Nazism ― on the contrary, he abhorred it ― but because he feared communism more than fascism and because he was afraid to risk the loss of the church’s power by taking an uncompromising stand against the self-declared masters of Europe. Or as the British Foreign Office put it, the pope, “for worldly rather than spiritual reasons, has allowed himself, like others, to be bullied.”

Although the Vatican undertook many private initiatives to help Jewish and other refugees, Pius remained silent through most of the war. He refused to condemn the German invasion of Poland in the belief that the Poles were at fault, and despite repeated pleas from the Polish government in exile, he failed to condemn Nazi genocide.

“We cannot forget that there are 40 million Catholics in the Reich,” he said at the time of the invasion of Poland. “What would they be exposed to after such an act by the Holy See?” When he did speak out, as in his 1942 Christmas message about the deaths of “hundreds of thousands of people .......... merely because of their race or their descent,” the appeal was lost in the opacity of Vaticanese language.

Similarly, the Vatican said nothing about the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Serbs belonging to the Serbian Orthodox church during the Nazi Catholic puppet dictatorship of Croatia, apparently because its leader, Ante Pavelic, and his Ustashi thugs had the support of the local Catholic clergy. The only important Catholic voice to speak out against the slaughter was that of the French Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, who said that at least 350,000 people had been killed by Pavelic’s forces. The Holy See, said Tisserant, has accommodated itself “for its own exclusive advantage-and very little else.”

Much the same might have been said of some American members of the Knights of Malta. W.R. Grace & Co. was on the U.S. government’s “Watch list” of companies known or suspected to be trading with the enemy during WWII. State Department documents showed that some Grace personnel in Latin America were kept under surveillance because of their ties to Nazi agents, particularly those in the company’s shipping lines and in the Panagra airline, which Grace owned jointly with Pan American Airways. (J. Peter Grace, who took over the company at the end of the war and became SMOM’s leading American Knight, later employed a Nazi war criminal and chemist, aiding him to enter the United States under the U.S. government recruitment program of Nazi scientists known as “Project Paperclip.”) Joseph Kennedy, another prominent American Knight, was forced in 1940 to leave his post as U.S. ambassador to London because of his noninterventionist stance.

After the war, the Vatican, the OSS, the SS (Schutzstaffel, the elite guard of Nazi intelligence) and the various branches of SMOM joined to do battle against the common Soviet enemy ― and to help Nazi war criminals escape. In 1945, when the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt, the OSS approached Reinhard Gehlen, who was Hitler’s chief of intelligence on the Eastern Front. The aim was to revamp the Gehlen Organization into “an OSS-controlled operation.” The plan was so successful that “Gehlen Org” was transformed into West Germany’s postwar intelligence agency, the BND, with help and money from the OSS’ successor, the CIA.

Paralleling the OSS-Gehlen plan was “Project Paperclip,” which smuggled more than 900 German scientists into the United States. Gehlen’s brother was secretary to one of the chief officials in SMOM’s Rome headquarters, and the Knights were active as go-betweens. Baron Luigi Parrilli, an Italian aristocrat who was a Knight of Malta, papal chamberlain and fascist sympathizer, took part in the negotiations between SS leaders and the CIA's future director, Allen Dulles.

Meanwhile, James Jesus Angleton, who would later become the CIA’s controversial director of counterintelligence, was dispatched by admiral Ellery Stone, U.S. proconsul in occupied Italy, to rescue Prince Valerio Borghese from possible arrest by the Italian Resistance, which had sentenced him to death for war crimes. Borghese, who survived to be a leader in Italy’s postwar fascist politics, was a Bailiff Grand Cross of Honor and Devotion of SMOM, and in gratitude for U.S. services to him and other Knights, SMOM gave Stone, Angleton and Angelton’s deputy its Grand Cross award. Other recipients of the coveted award were Reinhard Gehlen and Truman’s Vatican envoy, Myron C. Taylor.

SMOM provided more than medals. One of its directors arranged for the printing of 2,000 SMOM passports for political refugees, many of them Nazis. A branch of the Knights in southern Germany ran a large refugee camp, and the leading Bavarian Knight of Malta was reported to have arranged travel “for no small number of ex-Nazis.” That the Vatican, OSS and the U.S. Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) were a party to such arrangements is shown by files that Justice Department investigators discovered in the 1980s.

Catholic monasteries and convents were used as safe houses for war criminals on their way to Latin America. Sometimes the CIC supplied false documents, while church organizations provided the means of escape ― a famous case being the flight to Bolivia of Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon.”

A key contact in the underground rail way, known as the “Rat Line,” was a Croatian priest, Krunoslav Draganovic, who had been an adviser to Ante Pavelic and a member of his Ustashi terrorists and who ran the Croatian Committee for Pontifical Assistance, an aid and resettlement agency of the Holy See. Draganovic passed along upward of 30,000 Croatians, including most of the Pavelic government and Pavelic himself, who escaped Argentina. The priest also helped SS officers escape, according to Barbie, who said that Draganovic described his work as “purely humanitarian.”

CIC reports to Washington gave detailed descriptions of Pavelic’s stay in Rome under church protection “disguised as a priest within Vatican City” and predicted his escape to Argentina, then ruled by the dictator Juan Peron, a Bailiff Grand Cross of Honor and Devotion of the Knights of Malta.

They also reported Pavelic’s contacts with Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the Vatican’s undersecretary of state and the future Pope Paul VI.

Montini, a close friend of SMOM and the OSS’ principal contact in the Vatican during the war, supervised the Vatican bureau that issued refugee travel documents.

CIC reports and other documentation show that he was privy to the activities of the Croatian Committee for Pontifical Assistance.

He apparently shared Pius XII’s conviction that Pavelic and his Ustashi troops might overthrow Marshal Titos government and reestablish a Catholic state in Yugoslavia.

Ivo Omrcanin, a close friend of Draganovic who was working at the Vatican when the priest was smuggling Croatians abroad, said that “the pope would never have considered anybody who was fighting communism a war criminal.” 

The relationship of the Vatican, SMOM and the OSS/CIA was also important in the crucial 1948 Italian elections. Baron Parrilli again served as a go-between, this time with the CIA, in planning Vatican strategy to prevent a Communist victory by backing the Christian Democrats. A key figure in the plan was Luigi Gedda, a Turin doctor, Knight of Malta and Catholic integralist who wanted to restore Europe to an age before Protestantism and the French Revolution.

Gedda was head of Italy’s Catholic Action, a militant lay movement of young people who served as papal shock troops ― C.L. Sulzberger, of the New York Times, reported from Rome that Catholic Action “is armed, active and tough.” Gedda organized a network of 18,000 “civic committees” to get out the vote. James Angleton, then CIA’s Vatican connection, strongly recommended CIA funding for Gedda’s political machine. The CIA pumped $65 million into Italian centrist and right-wing movements between 1946 and 1972, according to hearings by the House of Representatives.

Other important players were Montini and Spellman, the latter funneling huge amounts of New York money into clandestine church activities in Italy. Spellman encouraged a letter-writing campaign whereby Italian Americans urged their relatives to vote against the Italian Communists, and he joined such famous Americans as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper in a radio blitz of Italy at election time.

Meanwhile, Catholic Action’s papal troops prepared for battle with U.S. jeeps, guns and other supplies. The Christian Democrats won the election, and Washington, under pressure from Spellman, agreed to repay the Vatican’s election expenditures through Italy’s black currency market.

High-ranking Knights of Malta were involved in Italian politics during the following decades, and on two occasions, in 1964 and 1970, they attempted unsuccessful right-wing coups. The second attempt was led by Angleton’s Prince Borghese and the prince's neo-Nazi protege, Stefano Delle Chiaie, one of the period’s most dangerous terrorists. Borghese and Delle Chiaie were connected to the notorious P-2 Masonic Lodge, an organization with ties to the Mafia and the Vatican that schemed to take over the Italian state and was responsible for a string of terrorist acts.

* Footnote from Concordat Watch: In 2017 Pope Francis backed plans to open up the leadership of the Knights of Malta to commoners. He intends to replace the chivalric order’s 1,000 year old rule that grand masters have aristocratic lineage dating back four generations on both sides of the family tree.

"Pope backs plans to open chivalric order’s leadership to commoners", Times, 27 April 2017.

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