VATICAN CITY — Argentinian Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, under a Vatican investigation for sexual abuse of seminarians and other sexual misconduct, is attending Pope Francis’ annual Lenten spiritual exercises with other Curia officials this week.
According to a report from Christopher Altieri of the Catholic Herald, Bishop Zanchetta confirmed by phone that he is attending the retreat, which began in the afternoon of March 10 at a retreat house outside Rome.
The bishop is on a leave of absence from the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) while under investigation. The current bishop of Orán is in the process of collecting testimonies regarding the allegations against Bishop Zanchetta, which will be sent to the Congregation for Bishops and ultimately be judged by Pope Francis personally.
The Pope’s annual Lenten spiritual exercises are taking place through March 15 at the Casa del Divin Maestro in Ariccia, a town situated about 16 miles outside Rome on Lake Albano. The retreat is traditionally attended by the pope and senior members of the Roman Curia, particularly department heads.
This year’s retreat is being led by Benedictine abbot Bernardo Francesco Maria Gianni, focused on meditations on the theme of Christ’s gaze and gestures in the life of the world.
After resigning as bishop of Orán in August 2017, Bishop Zanchetta was appointed by Pope Francis in December 2017 to a position created for him within the APSA, which oversees the Vatican’s assets and real estate holdings.
The Vatican has twice insisted it knew nothing about abuse reports against Bishop Zanchetta until the fall of 2018, though media investigations suggest that Pope Francis knew about the allegations in 2015, two years before he gave Bishop Zanchetta a Vatican job.
Bishop Zanchetta was reported to the Vatican in 2015 and 2017, when he was discovered in lewd sexual photographs on his cellphone and suspected of sexual abusing seminarians.
Documents published Feb. 21 by The Tribune, a newspaper in the Salta region of Argentina, purport to show that the Vatican received a complaint about Bishop Zanchetta in 2015 and that Pope Francis had spoken to Bishop Zanchetta after the complaint was filed. The documents also claim that Bishop Zanchetta failed to register and report the sale of two church properties worth millions of dollars.
The documents seem to confirm earlier reporting by The Associated Press. Bishop Zanchetta also faces a judicial complaint of sexual abuse in Argentina that was recently made public.
Father Juan Jose Manzano, Bishop Zanchetta’s former vicar general in the diocese of Orán, told The Associated Press that the Vatican received complaints against Bishop Zanchetta in both 2015 and 2017, but that the 2015 complaint was not issued as an official canonical complaint.
According to The Tribune’s report, one of Bishop Zanchetta’s secretaries alerted authorities after accidentally finding sexually explicit images sent and received on Bishop Zanchetta’s cellphone. The complaint says that some of the images depict “young people” having sex in addition to lewd images of Bishop Zanchetta.
The report says three of Bishop Zanchetta’s vicars general and two monsignors made a formal internal complaint before the Argentinian nunciature in 2016, alleging inappropriate behavior with seminarians, such as encouraging them to drink alcohol and favoring the more “graceful” (attractive) among them.
Pope Francis summoned Bishop Zanchetta to Rome for five days in October 2015. The Pope appeared to have accepted Bishop Zanchetta’s excuse that his cellphone had been hacked and dismissed the allegations.
The 2017 internal accusation, which The Tribune says alleged more explicit abuse by Bishop Zanchetta of seminarians, resulted in his exit from the diocese, though Bishop Zanchetta said he was resigning for health reasons. The Vatican did not open an investigation at that time.
Father Manzano said part of the reason the allegations against Bishop Zanchetta may have not been taken seriously by the Vatican was because of the bishop’s close relationship with Pope Francis, who appointed him bishop of Orán in 2013. Still, Father Manzano said he didn’t believe the Vatican meant to lie or hide anything about Bishop Zanchetta. He said he believed Francis and other Vatican officials had also been victims of the bishop’s “manipulation.”
Vatican Press Office spokesman Alessandro Gisotti in January “resolutely” repeated a Vatican statement that said no sexual-abuse charges had yet emerged against the bishop at the time Pope Francis appointed Bishop Zanchetta to his position at APSA. Gisotti said the charges only emerged in the fall of 2018.
When asked at a Feb. 24 news conference about Zanchetta’s case, Gisotti reiterated that an investigation is ongoing.