ROME – As a Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on the protection of minors approaches, ferment related to clerical sexual abuse continues to percolate in Pope Francis’s native Argentina.
The episodes in question range from a bishop given refuge in the Vatican who is now facing charges, to a monastery in trouble and a bishops’ conference president with great expectations for the pope’s assembly.
The Zanchetta affair
A prosecutor’s office in the northern province of Salta, where Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta served until his resignation in 2017, confirmed through a statement on Monday that an alleged victim had come forward with a charge against the prelate.
“Several measures were arranged in order to clarify the allegations, and it is not ruled out that new complaints against the former bishop may be added,” the judicial body said in a statement.
Zanchetta resigned without explanation as the bishop of Oran in northwestern Argentina on Aug. 1, 2017, and later that year was appointed by Francis to the new position of “assessor” in the Vatican’s financial management office, APSA.
According to a January statement by the Vatican’s spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, at the time of Zanchetta’s resignation in Argentina there were no allegations of sexual abuse.
At the time, Gisotti said, Zanchetta asked Francis to allow him to leave Oran, some 1,025 miles from Buenos Aires, because he had difficult relations with his priests and was “unable to govern the clergy.”
“There were accusations against him of authoritarianism, but there were no accusations of sexual abuse,” the statement said.
However, a report by The Associated Press from Jan. 21 includes claims made by Zanchetta’s former vicar, Father Juan Jose Manzano, who said allegations of abuses of power, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of adult seminarians had been sent to the Vatican in 2015 and 2017.
Francis appointed Zanchetta to Oran in 2013, one of the first moves the pontiff made in his home country. The two knew each other well, and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Francis, was reportedly the bishop’s confessor.
Zanchetta also had been an undersecretary of the Argentine bishops’ conference, which Bergoglio headed for two successive terms from 2005-2011.
Earlier this month, the Vatican confirmed that the new bishop of Oran had opened a preliminary canonical investigation into Zanchetta for alleged sexual abuse.
Before a formal allegation against the former bishop was made, local authorities had already opened an investigation after reports from local media detailed improper behavior. Due to public interest in the case, Salta’s judicial authorities have appointed two prosecutors to investigate.
The case of the monastery
In December, two priests, Diego Roque and Oscar Portillo, were imprisoned after a former student of the community of the Monastery of Cristo Orante (Praying Christ) accused them of sexual abuse. The crime allegedly began in 2009, when the student was a minor, and continued until 2015, when the young man was 23.
They were formally charged for “abuse, aggravated by the fact that they are figures of authority, and for abuse with carnal access.”
New information shows that in both 2015 and 2018 the alleged victim went to the local archdiocese to make a report, before going to civil authorities in October 2018.
According to the newspaper Los Andes, after the first allegation Portillo was sanctioned by then-Archbishop Carlos Franzini, who transferred the founder of the monastery to a different province.
An ecclesial commission investigated the case again in March, and its report claims that Portillo recognized “his sin,” without giving details, describing him as “very sorry and nervous.”
The priest allegedly acknowledged that the events were “of a sexual nature,” but claimed it was the victim who pursued him. The two priests who signed the report concluded that they found it “hard to understand” how adults could allow an 18-year old man to accost them.
According to their report, the allegation was credible and should be investigated.
Regarding Portillo and the other priest accused, ecclesial investigators underlined that through various witness they were able to detect a “behavior of systemic manipulation of conscience.”
The archdiocese confirmed that seeing the credibility of the allegation, a canonical process had been opened and the Vatican had agreed for the priests to be tried in a tribunal in Buenos Aires to guarantee objectivity.
It’s unknown why Portillo was allowed to return to the monastery and why he was reinstated as prior after the allegation of 2015.
“Great expectations” over the February summit
Bishop Oscar Ojea of San Isidro, president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, released a statement on Monday saying he has “great expectations” for the February meeting in Rome, because “by deepening [awareness] of the consequences of this drama and finding appropriate ways to fight it, we will enormously help not only victims of abuses committed by clergy and the Church, but also society as a whole affected by this scourge.”
Abuse affects “the whole of society, families and even institutions,” he said. “The key to understanding abuse is the manipulation of a situation of inequality of power; the power that derives from physical and intellectual difference, or from occupying a higher role.”
“It takes the form of invading the intimacy of another [person] who is vulnerable, and includes physical and psychological abuse,” Ojea said.
Talking about the path that survivors and victims of abuse go through, the bishop said that being able to talk about it is the right way to begin resolving the problem, but for this to happen, it’s needed for “everyone to learn to generate spaces to listen.”
Only then will the Church be able to begin repairing the damage, he said, which involves civil justice as well as psychology and spirituality.
Referring to the Church’s mission in confronting sexual abuse of minors and helping survivors heal, Ojea said it’s essential to teach girls and boys to say “no” and to trust responsible adults if they need to make an allegation.
The bishop also said that encountering victims “changed my way of understanding the seriousness of sexual abuse.”
“I had to listen to some very hard and devastating things, in front of which it was impossible to say a word other than being on their side,” he said. “In these situations, the bishop lives an authentic experience of the cross, feeling that he is part of a great purification to which the Church is called.”