Former Vatican prelate to face trial for sexual abuse in Argentina on Feb. 21

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ROSARIO, Argentina – After a five-month delay, Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, a veteran prelate who has boasted of his friendship with the pope, will be tried in a criminal court Feb. 21.

The sentence, Crux has been able to confirm, might be decided as soon as Feb. 25.

A hearing in the case against the former bishop of Oran, in Argentina’s northern Salta region, was originally scheduled to take place Oct. 12-15 of last year, according to the local public ministry.

“As it was already suspended while waiting for the documents, the judge decided that the hearing should be held,” said the Public Prosecutor’s Office, according to Salta’s daily El Tribuno

The documents in question were from the Vatican.

According to a series of norms published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2020, “whenever civil judicial authorities issue a legitimate executive order requiring the surrender of documents regarding cases, or order the judicial seizure of such documents, the Ordinary or Hierarch must cooperate with the civil authorities.”

This built on a 2019 decision by Francis to lift the ponitfical secret on matters concerning sexual abuse, instructing Vatican officials to comply with civil laws and assist civil judicial authorities in investigating such cases. In other words, though it  should still be treated with “security, integrity and confidentiality,” if a court asks the Holy See for information on a case, it should be shared.

In the case of Zanchetta, however, the prosecutor claims the requested information never arrived. Attempts by Crux to confirm from the Vatican – both the CDF and the Congregation for Bishops – have gone unanswered. 

“It is unclear if they chose to ignore the request in an attempt to protect their own, or hide behind a technicality, claiming the court did not file the procedures according to their liking,” said a source close to the case in Salta, who requested to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak to the press.

The extension was requested by the defense in October, since the information was requested from the Vatican by both sides of the case.

After a series of accusations were sent to Pope Francis, the pontiff accepted Zanchetta’s resignation in 2017. The prelate claimed he was leaving for “health reasons.”

Francis told Mexican broadcaster Televisa that after accepting the bishop’s resignation from Oran, he sent Zanchetta to Spain to receive psychological treatment. Afterwards, in the pope’s own words, he “parked” the bishop in Italy, where he’s been living in the Santa Marta residence, a hotel within Vatican grounds where the Argentine pontiff has lived since the beginning of his pontificate.

A canonical process was ordered by Pope Francis after the allegations were made public by the media.

In the Argentinian criminal court, Zanchetta is charged with simple sexual abuse – aggravated by being committed by a recognized religious minister – against “G.G.F.L.” and “C.M.”, who were seminarians at the time. Their identities are being withheld by the court.

At the time of the alleged abuse both young men were studying in the institute built during Zanchetta’s term as head of the diocese. The prosecution has emphasized the situation of vulnerability in which the complainants found themselves, one of them an orphan and the other a street vendor.

According to a statement by the public ministry, at least 39 witnesses are expected to testify during the hearing. The court will be composed of three judges, one woman and two men.

Zanchetta also faces allegations of financial mismanagement, allegedly committed through the administration of the seminary. These accusations prompted a raid of diocesan offices for allegedly defrauding the State. There are no new developments in this case.

Francis also said there was no evidence of Zanchetta misusing funds, only that he wasn’t “orderly” when it came to money. The pontiff said at the time that Zanchetta had a “good vision,” but conceded he may not have been very good at “keeping track” of things – raising questions about why Francis nonetheless created an ad hoc role for Zanchetta in the administration of the Vatican’s own financial portfolio at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which functions as the central bank for Vatican City.

In APSA, Zanchetta served as an “assessor,” a position created specifically for him. However, on Jan. 4, 2019, he was temporarily suspended from the post pending a canonical investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians.

Yet Zanchetta was returned to work in 2020, despite the fact that he was undergoing investigation both by civil authorities and the Vatican. He left his post mid-2021, though no official statement was ever released by the Holy See about his situation.

When Zanchetta was first formally accused of sexually abusing seminarians, prosecutors said he could face three to ten years in prison.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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