Lawyer for Argentine prelate in Vatican confident he’ll be cleared

Lawyer for Argentine prelate in Vatican confident he’ll be cleared

In this Aug. 26, 2016 file photo, Gustavo Zanchetta, bishop of Oran, participates in negotiations with border workers, in Oran, Salta, Argentina. An Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis has gone back to work at the Holy See’s financial administration office while under investigation in his native Argentina and at the Vatican for alleged sexual abuse. The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, confirmed Archbishop Gustavo Zanchetta had resumed work at the APSA patrimony office but said it in no way interferes with the investigations. He said Zanchetta remains at the disposition of Argentine judicial authorities. (Credit: Javier Corbalan/AP.)

A lawyer for Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, appointed by Pope Francis to a Vatican post amid charges of sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement, told Crux that the Church process against Zanchetta is “almost over” and that he’s confident the bishop’s name will be “cleared.”

ROSARIO, Argentina – An Argentinian bishop suspended over allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians went back to work in his Vatican post after the restrictions due to COVID-19 coronavirus were lifted. His lawyer told Crux that the Church process against him is “almost over” and that he’s confident the bishop’s name will be “cleared.”

Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta was sent by Francis to the diocese of Oran, in northern Argentina, in 2013, making it one of his first episcopal appointments. However, in 2017 the bishop resigned, alleging health reasons. A few months later, the pontiff appointed him to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which functions as the central bank for Vatican City and which administers the Vatican’s financial portfolio.

In APSA Zanchetta works as an “assessor,” a position created for him. However, on Jan. 4, 2019, the bishop was suspended from the post pending an investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct with seminarians dating to his time as a diocesan bishop.

As Crux reported on Saturday, the bishop went back to work earlier this month. Upon request, the director of the Holy See press office, Matteo Bruni, confirmed that “while naturally remaining available to the Argentine judicial authorities, [Bishop] Zanchetta was able to resume his service which does not interfere in any way with the investigations.”

In correspondence with Crux, Javier Belda Iniesta, a canon lawyer, said that the church process against Zanchetta is “almost over.”

Together with the bishop, the lawyer said, “we fully trust that this long judicial journey will serve to clear the name of Bishop Zanchetta and thus contribute to strengthening justice, since it is as fair to protect the victims as it is to acquit those who have been falsely accused.”

A series of documents published in 2015 by El Tribuno of Salta, the capital of the state where Oran is located, speak of two main charges against the bishop – one of a sexual nature, the other concerning financial mismanagement.

They include a series of pictures in Zanchetta’s possession of an explicitly sexual nature, such as Zanchetta naked and touching himself in his bedroom, and of young men having sex. Those pictures were discovered by accident by the secretary of the diocese, a layman.

The bishop also has 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.

Despite those red flags, in the 2015 report there were no charges that Zanchetta abused minors, or that his sexual behavior, howeve improper for a cleric, was criminal. The men featured in the pornographic images weren’t seminarians, and, though young, they weren’t minors.

As a high-ranking Vatican official told Crux in March 2019, it remains to be seen if Zanchetta has committed a crime under either ecclesiastical or civil law – or whether if he’s simply a “perv.”

In 2015 Francis summoned Zanchetta to Rome, who, upon his return to Argentina, allegedly told friends that the pope believed him when he said that the pictures were fake and that his phone had been hacked.

This was confirmed by the pontiff in an interview he gave to Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki in May 2019: “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.

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“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.

The pope later sent Zanchetta to Spain to receive psychological treatment and asked him to resign from the Diocese of Oran. After this, 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 Francis also resides.

Francis also said there was no evidence Zanchetta misusing funds, only that he wasn’t “orderly” when it came to money. Despite not being good at keeping track, the pontiff said, the bishop had a “good vision.”

In 2016, three of Zanchetta’s vicar generals and two monsignors, including the Archbishop of Salta, issued their own complaint through official channels. It was presented to the Vatican embassy to Argentina headed at the time by Swiss Archbishop Paúl Emile Tscherrig, who’s currently the Vatican nuncio to Italy.

That report again detailed Zanchetta’s behavior, referring to it as “strange” but with no accusations of an actual crime.

Back in August, Oran’s prosecutor, María Soledad Filtrín, requested a public trial against the bishop. Speaking with Crux and local paper El Tribuno, she said that some 20 former seminarians have given testimony regarding the case, and each one of them is key because they “illustrate the context and the relationship seminarians had with Zanchetta.”

“They are eye witnesses and they heard things, meaning that they can support what those denouncing him claim,” she said. “It’s very difficult to verbalize these situations, the fear they had of the bishop, their inability to defend themselves.”

The prosecutor acknowledged that there was an abuse of power and conscience, and a grooming process that led to the abuses. Without revealing sensitive information on the case, she also said that the bishop would buy them gifts and have other gestures of affection that, at the beginning, seemed normal and were perhaps welcomed by the young men who come from troubled families.

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In an email exchange with Crux, Iniesta, Zanchetta’s lawyer in the church proceedings, said the Church’s legal process is almost over.

“Regarding the processes that he is facing, as far as the canonical is concerned, I can tell you that it is almost finished,” Iniesta said. “The latest investigations ended in December last year, and were not available to the defense until mid-January.”

The worldwide health emergency due to coronavirus exploded a few weeks later, and this has “hindered the normal development of the process,” the lawyer said. However, he’s confident the church case against Zanchetta will be “concluded in coming days.”

“We are especially pleased that a scrupulous investigation has been carried out in all aspects, both economically and in the alleged abuses,” Iniesta said. “We must remember that when it comes to such serious accusations, regardless of how striking the headlines they may provoke, it is necessary to prove in court the crimes that are imputed, beyond a simple rumor mill or the animosity of those who do not accept the established authority.”

According to the lawyer, “this whole crazy matter” began with “alleged photographs,” which he argues they’ve already proven to be “crude photo montages.” This pictures were never made public, either by those who leaked the allegations against Zanchetta nor by his defense.

“We have an enormous amount of material evidence that proves the falsity of the other accusations,” the lawyer said. “The truth is that all the accusations, which have been echoed by the media, are absolutely inconsistent.”

As for the Argentine civil cause, the lawyer noted, “there is still no news.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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