ROSARIO, Argentina – As the release of a Vatican report on the rise of laicized former cardinal Theodore McCarrick puts the spotlight on how clerical culture can protect high-ranking officials when they are accused of abuse, some eyes turned to the case of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta.
Though far from being nearly as influential as McCarrick was, this Argentine prelate was still one of Pope Francis’s first episcopal appointments, and three year ago was publicly accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and financial mismanagement in his diocese.
Zanchetta’s case is still moving through the Argentine courts, and Francis has personally appointed an archbishop to look into the matter.
The last time the pope spoke publicly about Zanchetta was in 2019, in an interview with a Mexican journalist. Coincidently, it had been the one and only time he’d spoken publicly about McCarrick until Wednesday, when the day after the McCarrick report came out he promised to end clerical sexual abuse of children.
In his interview with Valentina Alazraki, Francis gave a thorough summary of what had happened with the man he had appointed to the small, northern diocese of Oran, in Salta, Argentina back in 2013.
“Before I asked for his resignation, there was an accusation, and I immediately made him come over with the person who accused him and explain it,” Francis said. The accusation involved the bishop’s phone, which contained homosexual pornography, and explicit sexual images of Zanchetta in his bedroom.
“The defense is that he had his phone hacked, and he made a good defense,” the pope said, adding that it created enough doubt, so Francis told Zanchetta to go back.
“Evidently he had, some say, despotic treatment of others – he was bossy,” and a “not completely clear dealing of finances,” though as the pope noted, this hasn’t been proven.
“But certainly, the clergy didn’t feel well treated by him,” Francis said. “They complained until they made an allegation as a body to the Nunciature,” the Vatican’s embassy in Argentina.
The pope says that he then called the nuncio, who told him that the allegation of mistreatment was “serious,” and the pope understood it to be a case of “abuse of power.”
Once he had replaced Zanchetta in Oran, he opened an investigation into the allegations made against the bishop, and 15 days later, decided that it was necessary to have a trial.
These comments were made in May 2019. Since then, there has been little to no public movement on the Zanchetta case.
In 2017, not long after being removed from Oran, the bishop was appointed by Francis to work in the Vatican’s Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See which functions as the Vatican’s central bank, where he works as an “assessor,” a position specially created for the Argentine.
In Jan. 2018, when allegations against Zanchetta were made public, the Vatican’s press office said that “during the preliminary investigation, Msgr. Zanchetta, will abstain from work.”
At the beginning of 2019, also through a statement from the press office, the Vatican promised that, “when this process is over, information will be forthcoming regarding the results.”
Yet as Crux reported earlier this year, the prelate went back to work in his Vatican office after the COVID-19 restrictions were originally lifted in Italy at the beginning of summer.
After unsuccessful attempts to reach Zanchetta via phone at APSA – though the man who answered the phone acknowledged that the bishop is regularly going to the office – Crux spoke with his lawyer, Spaniard Javier Belda Iniesta, who stressed that his defendant is “eagerly awaiting the resolution of his case.”
The lawyer also said that they’re convinced “not only of the innocence of Monsignor Zanchetta, but of having proven that the accusation lacked grounds, including the famous photograph, which we proved through judicial expertise that they are photomontages, he’s not the one in them.”
“You will understand the uncertainty faced by someone who believes that they have been unjustly accused, that they have unfortunately been in the media for a long time and have been unable to return to normal life despite considering that they have not committed any crime,” he said.
Regarding his client being back to the office, Belda Iniesta said that this is out of his competence since it’s not part of the canonical process, but he understand that Zanchetta was “suggested” not to go to the office, but never actually suspended from his position during the investigation.
He explained that the canonical process against the bishop has taken longer than originally expected due to the COVID-19 restrictions, that made it impossible to review the files in person, as it must be done with canonical processes against a bishop, and it was June before they were able to file his defense. Since the Vatican practically shuts down in the summer, with the added problems of the pandemic, it means things take even longer than usual.
Those who made the allegations against Zanchetta are equally frustrated by how long the process is taking.
The bishop is accused of sitting in the beds of seminarians at night and pressuring them into giving him massages and other overtly sexual ministrations. Although Zanchetta is not accused of abusing minors, the alleged victims are men as young as 18.
Crux reached out to one of the priests who made the allegations against Zanchetta. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, because “we’re not being well treated when a news is published,” he said that when it comes to transparency on the case of the former bishop of Oran “those making things more transparent are you, the media.”
“The Zanchetta case is a very delicate one,” he said. “This character made too much damage to our diocesan church, that cannot recover from it all, that was cut in half after it happened. I don’t believe that the case should be left unresolved.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma