ROME – Though Pope Francis has faced questions and even criticism for his overall handling of the clerical sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism, few cases touch the pontiff quite as directly as that of Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who was brought to Rome at the pope’s personal initiative and who now stands accused of abuse.
Appointed by Francis to the northern Argentine diocese of Oran, when the bishop resigned at the age of 53 in 2017 he said the move was for “health reasons.” A few months later, Francis named him Assessor to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which administers the Vatican’s financial portfolio.
Last year, it became public that Zanchetta has been accused both of sexual misconduct and of financial wrongdoing, although a Vatican spokesman insisted there were no abuse allegations at the time Zanchetta was brought to Rome.
Clearly, the pope hasn’t yet thrown in the towel on Zanchetta; the Catholic Herald reported Monday that the Argentine prelate is taking part this week in a spiritual retreat for members of the Roman Curia along with Francis and senior Vatican officials.
Another Argentine, Archbishop Carlos Alberto Sanchez of Tucuman, has been tapped with carrying out an inquiry into the Zanchetta case, and much is riding on the results.
One key issue for Sanchez, as well as for the civil justice system in Argentina, is whether Zanchetta has committed a crime under either ecclesiastical or civil law — or whether, in the words of one senior Vatican official, he’s simply a “perv.”
“If he’s a perv, he doesn’t belong in the priesthood, and maybe should even be hospitalized. But only time will tell if he belongs in jail,” the source said.
A series of documents published by El Tribuno of Salta, capital of the state where Oran is located, speak of two main problems with the bishop – one of a sexual nature, the other concerning financial mismanagement.
They include a series of pictures discovered to be in Zanchetta’s possession of an explicitly sexual tenor, such as Zanchetta naked and touching himself and of young men having sex. Those pictures were discovered by accident by the secretary of the diocese, a layman.
The bishop has also been accused of improper behavior with seminarians.
Documents allege that Zanchetta paid nighttime visits to the seminary, where he would observe students with a lantern, sit in their beds early in the morning and have them give him hugs and massages. An initial report on Zancehtta reportedly reached Rome through informal channels, namely, Cardinal Mario Aurelio Poli of Buenos Aires, hand-picked by Francis as his replacement.
Despite the red flags, in the 2015 report there are no charges that Zanchetta abused minors, or that his sexual behavior, improper for a cleric, was in fact, criminal. Those featured in the pornographic images weren’t seminarians, and, though young, they weren’t minors.
The leaked documents don’t speak of criminal behavior, but of “strange attitudes” for a bishop to have.
In 2015 Francis summoned Zanchetta to Rome, who, upon his return to Argentina, allegedly told friends that the pope had believed him when he said that the pictures were fake and that his phone had been hacked.
In 2016, three of Zanchetta’s vicar generals and two monsignors, including the Archbishop of Salta, issued their own complaint, this time through official channels: it was presented to the Vatican embassy to Argentina headed at the time by Archbishop Paúl Emile Tscherrig, who’s currently the Vatican nuncio to Italy.
Tscherrig requested their report, which again detailed Zanchetta’s behavior, referring to it as “strange” but with no accusations of an actual crime.
There’s also an accusation that the bishop sold a building belonging to the diocese for $800,000 without informing proper channels and that the transaction was left off the diocesan books. The signatories claim the bishop said that he had done so at the advice of the pope.
The accusation in this case is not that Zanchetta stole funds, but he failed to report them.
Where does the case go from here?
Clerics working for the Vatican accused of improper behavior are supposed to be investigated by the Disciplinary Commission for the Roman Curia, which can consider matters that wouldn’t necessarily be viewed as crimes under civil law.
Having pornographic images on one’s phone involving adults, for instance, is not a crime in most Western countries. However, it’s something that could lead to a decision that a bishop is unsuited for office.
Sanchez presently is conducting a “preliminary investigation,” as one source defined it to Crux. He won’t try Zanchetta but only provide information directly to the pope.
If from his investigation it turns out that minors were involved, there would be a crime for the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to investigate. If no minors were involved, then the pope has the power to set up an ad-hoc tribunal to give him recommendations as to what to do.
After the allegations of improper sexual behavior against Zanchetta were made public, two seminarians came forward to civil authorities, formally accusing the bishop of “simple” sexual abuse.
According to what the seminarians told El Tribuno, five more are contemplating making similar allegations.
The seminarians decided to go straight to the police and not to the diocese because they said they trust neither the new bishop of Oran, Luis Scozzina, nor Sanchez. The alleged victims have spoken of kisses on the neck, hugs, and other gestures that weren’t included in the first two reports.
There may be a precedent for Francis eventually changing his mind about Zanchetta.
After his resignation from Oran, the bishop spent a period of time in Spain, the Vatican has confirmed. Three sources confirmed to Crux that during that stretch, Zanchettta spent a month doing an Ignatian retreat with Jesuit priest German Arana.
A year earlier, another highly contested bishop had done a retreat with Arana: Juan Barros from Chile. Barros had long been accused by survivors of clerical sexual abuse of covering up for his mentor, former priest Fernando Karadima, and although Francis initially defended Barros, he eventually accepted his resignation.