ROME – The case of an Argentine bishop currently serving a prison sentence of four years and six months for abuse took an unexpected turn this week, when his canon lawyer was sent to investigate the priests and seminarians of his diocese.

On Thursday, several Argentine outlets reported that Spanish canon lawyer Javier Belda Iniesta, who defended Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta during his ecclesiastical trial- a secret process, the results of which have never been revealed – is now in Oran investigating the priests, deacons and seminarians who testified in the civil trial against the bishop.

The sole judge of Salta’s Ecclesiastical Tribunal, Loyola Pinto, confirmed that the appointment of Belda Iniesta came from the Vatican and Pope Francis.

Zanchetta was one of Pope Francis’s first episcopal appointments in 2013. In 2017, at the age of 53, he abruptly left the diocese of Oran, in northern Argentina, alleging he needed medical treatment in Spain. Soon after, he was appointed by the pontiff to an ad-hoc position in the office that handles the Holy See’s patrimony (APSA).

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In 2018, allegations against him for having sexually abused seminarians were made public, as was the fact that it was the diocesan vicar general, together with other priests, who had sent the allegations against Zanchetta to the pope, both informally through Cardinal Mario Poli of Buenos Aires and officially via the papal ambassador to Argentina.

Francis spoke with Zanchetta in Rome about the allegations, which included that he acted improperly with seminarians and had gay pornography on his mobile phone, including explict images of himself. The pope later said Zanchetta had convinced him that he was innocent.

Fast forward to earlier this year, and the court in Oran found Zanchetta guilty and sentenced him to four years and six months of effective imprisonment for aggravated continuous sexual abuse of two former seminarians. As of this month, however, he has been hospitalized in a private clinic due to hypertension.

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Regarding his double role of defender of Zanchetta and investigator of those who testified against him, Iniesta claimed that there is no conflict of interest: “I perform tasks as defender in some cases, and in others I perform the role of investigator, notary or even judge. There is nothing strange about it. In this case, I already knew the place.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that I am related to any witness, what I can tell you is that in that case it would have nothing to do with the fact of having been a witness in another case,” Belda Iniesta told Salta12.

“Let’s understand that someone can be a witness in one process and be accused in another. But we are not even talking about defendants or anything like that, we are only conducting a preliminary investigation to determine if some facts are plausible and imputable to someone. But let us understand that not all possible canonical crimes committed in [the] region have to be related to the case of Monsignor Zanchetta,” he said, attempting to assuage the concerns of this being a witch hunt, as alleged by several of those subpoenaed by him.

Some of the subpoenas were signed by the secretary of the diocese of Oran, Elma Gabriela Carral, while others were signed by Iniesta.

Not all of those who testified against Zanchetta are currently being investigated, as at least one of them, a deacon, told Nuevo Diario that he has not been called (yet).

Speaking with El Tribuno, Belda Iniesta said that the ongoing investigation “has nothing to do with the case of the abuses of the former bishop of Oran. Another thing is that some of those cited have been frightened, they will know why, and have already created an image that has nothing to do with reality.”

And he added: “Once the investigation is concluded, a proposal will be made that can be filed or a canonical process be opened. But that is afterwards.”

“If [you, the reporter] don’t know what is being investigated, how can it be said that it has the same person as the axis?” he said. “As much as they say that it is for the Zanchetta cause, it has nothing to do with him, these are facts unrelated to him.”

He also justified the fact that many of those subpoenaed for this preliminary investigation also testified against Zanchetta, saying there are a small number of clergy in the diocese, and 40 percent of them testified against their former bishop.

Zanchetta remains a priest in good standing, despite being found guilty of abuse by the Argentine courts.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma