The Committee on the Orders of St. John, founded in Rome in 1975 at the initiative of the Maltese Order, is the oldest and most autonomous institution in which the five recognized Orders of St. John collaborate as partners: the Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens St. Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem (Brandenburg Bailiwick of the Knightly Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem) (Die Johanniter for short), the Most Venerable Order of St. John, the Johanniter Orde in Nederland, the Johanniter Order i Sverige and the Catholic Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta (Sovereign Military Order of Malta).
According to its statutes, the Committee on the Orders of St. John has the task of identifying and monitoring any pseudo-Orders of St. John imitating the name, emblems and documents of the recognized Orders of St. John. The Committee’s findings are made available to the governments of the member Orders, to national authorities of church and government administration, the media and any private individuals who might be interested. In the course of its existence, the Committte, once known as the “False Orders Committee”, has become known beyond its member Orders and is acknowledged as an authority on these issues. The number is legion of private associations, who give themselves the names, or parts of names, of now defunct knightly orders, or names that resound with a certain chivalrous claim. This field is constantly in motion. These orders want to attract the public’s attention and acknowledgement, and very often cause grave problems for the recognized Orders of St. John.
While the number of self-styled Orders of St. John has hardly changed in the past years, 2004 saw three new “False Orders” appear. They are now diligently being monitored. Leaving aside approximately ten smaller, rather more folkloristic associations, the Committee has found that the core of 24 imitation Orders of St. John has, for the most part, remained stable. However, this figure does not include subsidiary groupings such as Priories, academies and foundations, which are steadily growing in number.
A manifest change is to be noted as compared to the situation given in previous decades: the criminal energy with which these so-called “knightly orders” pursue their business. The times of old are over, when they made a living selling titles and forged diplomatic passports. Today, under the cover of collecting money for charitable causes, they offer lucrative offshore financial transactions, or undertake to make investments in a scope safely permitting the conclusion that money is being laundered by mafia-like organizations on a grand scale.
The majority of the imitation Orders of St. John has their roots in an order of St. John founded by Tsar Paul I., which was reinstituted in the early 20th century by Russian émigrés and American citizens. This particular order fails to mention that its legality is in dispute and that, following the assassination of Tsar Paul I. in 1801, it was formally disbanded by his successor Alexander I.
Early on, the “orders” situated in the United States set their sights on the world. They first became involved in Western Europe and in the countries of the Commonwealth. In the past few years, they have been following the trend and are now to be found in developing nations and in Eastern and Middle Europe.
There can be no doubt that the activities of these self-styled “knightly orders” impair the work done by the recognized orders. They collect money from people who, in their good faith, cannot distinguish right from wrong and believe the story of “humanitarian aid” they are told. All of these “orders” use high-quality stationery decorated with various emblems in order to mislead unsuspecting private individuals just as much as companies and authorities. These letters are signed by people with grandiose titles and names, often pretending to be of noble descent, and nearly always false. Only if the recipients of such letters themselves become suspicious, or if third parties point out to them that the sender seems dubious, is it possible to avert damage, more often than not serious damage.
The task of the Committee on the Orders of St. John is to inform the public and to warn it of the nature of these “false” orders. The cooperation in the Committee is very close and characterized by an exceptional degree of trust. In this context, the partrnership with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is of utmost importance. The Committee was founded on its initiative in 1975. Other than the Most Venerable Order and the Protestant orders, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta is subject to international law and maintains numerous embassies also in countries in which these false orders are especially active, such as the United States or Poland. When these embassies contact the foreign offices of their host countries, but also other authorities such as the police and the judiciary, this has brought many a self-appointed “knight” behind bars. The predecessor “False Orders Committee” has laid the ground for this. Thanks to its investigations, the member Orders and the interested public are increasingly becoming aware of the machinations of the pretend Orders of St. John.
The abuse of their names concerns the five recognized Orders of St. John to varying degrees, but the Maltese Order is the one most strongly affected. No phantasy order can do without the words “Knights of Malta”. The word “Johanniter”, by contrast, is used only by a Danish order, in a subordinate sentence clause. All of them, however, style themselves “knights of St. John of Jerusalem”, and all of them use the eight-pointed cross. The recognized Orders of St. John are no loner willing to accept this, so that the work of the Committee on the Orders of St. John has a true mandate. As early as in 1955, the Balley Brandenburg prohibited membership concurrently with a self-styled order. The Most Venerable Order of St. John likewise has enacted rules that prohibit membership in orders of St. John that are not recognized. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, represented by national associations or the diplomatic missions mentioned previously, has even been able to obtain court rulings in France, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary that – although they did not abolish the pseudo-orders for good – did put a stop to the abuse of the name. In many other countries, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta was able to legally protect the name and the eight-pointed cross. The Emblem Protection Commission formed by the four non-Catholic orders has achieved the protection, Europe-wide, of the name and the eight-pointed cross by registering them with the EU-Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) in Alicante as “trademarks”. By obtaining this result, the Joint Commission on Emblem Protection has successfully completed its task. On September 16th, 2005, the delegates of the five recognized knightly orders therefore resolved to combine the Committee on the Orders of St. John-FOC and the Joint Committee to form the “Committee on the Orders of St. John”.
In the Baltic States and in the orders’ contacts with the Russian Patriarchate, diplomatic steps needed to be taken. It was possible to convince the Moscow Patriarchate that formally distance itself, in writing, from groups alleging to be successors to Russian orders of St. John and purporting to have been recognized by the Patriarchate.
The information obtained by the Committee on the Orders of St. John is decisive for the success of its work. The Committee bases its activities on the reports filed with it by a number of correspondents, as well as on the contributions made by its own delegates, the administrative offices of the member orders and, last but decidedly not least, on the information provided by vigilant brother knights. As important as this collaboration is, and continues to be, the practice in monitoring these orders most recently has been expanded in a quite promising manner. Grand Priories, diplomatic missions and the national associations of the Maltes Order have been instructed to report on the activities pursued by the “false orders” in their respective territories, and to take preventive action. It will be one of the foremost tasks for the future of the Committee on the Orders of St. John and the orders it represents to put to good and targeted use the additional information that it can be expected will be gained.