Argentinian Bishop’s Conviction Spotlights Pope Francis’ Role in Case
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The friendship between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires and Father Gustavo Zanchetta took root during 2005-2011, when the future pope led the Argentinian Bishops’ Conference and the younger priest served as executive undersecretary of that body.
And after the election of the Church’s first Latin American pope in 2013, the strength of that bond was clear to all when Pope Francis, in one of his first episcopal appointments, named Father Zanchetta the new bishop of Orán in northern Argentina.
The announcement prompted protests in the bishop-elect’s former Diocese of Quilmes, where lay leaders accused him of mishandling financial matters. It would be the first of many such complaints against Bishop Zanchetta that appeared to fall on deaf ears. Media reports and comments from Francis himself have documented the close bond between the two men and the fact that the accused remained in ministry for five years after allegations of sexual and financial misconduct against him first came to the Pope’s notice in 2015.
Now, following a civil trial in Argentina that found Bishop Zanchetta guilty of aggravated sexual assault of two seminarians, the Pope’s striking level of past personal involvement with the accused has raised questions about his ability to apply the Catholic Church’s norms designed to address episcopal sexual misconduct, abuse of power and cover-ups in a consistent manner that will protect the most vulnerable and repair the Church’s damaged moral credibility.
When a Catholic shepherd appears to apply Church law in an inconsistent and subjective manner, warned Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, it “creates one set of norms for those who show personal loyalty or have a personal connection with the decision-maker and those who do not.”
Father Pietrzyk, who teaches canon law at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, told the Register that such a pattern leads potential bad actors “to flout norms, confident that their personal relationship with the one in authority will allow them to circumvent any negative repercussions.”
“The testimony of the former seminarians certainly suggests that this is what Zanchetta believed: Because of his personal connection with Pope Francis, the norms of law did not apply to him,” the canonist added. “For the sake of justice and the rule of law, it is absolutely essential for the Holy See to make clear that this is not the case — that there is not a separate set of norms for some.”
Likewise, the case suggested that Francis had not fully embraced the painful lessons of the McCarrick scandal, which exposed the shocking vulnerability of seminarians under his authority, despite ongoing efforts to report his misconduct.
“Those in … authority within the Church hold great control over the formation of seminarians and have the power to dismiss quickly, hide or move seminarians as they please with little or no accountability,” Father John Lavers, a former Canadian law enforcement officer and seminary investigator, told the Register. “This allows for the cover-up of problems,” which are “‘handled’ with quiet discretion. However, the mental and physical trauma on a seminarian who has been abused remains for a lifetime.”
Bishop Zanchetta, 58, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, following his March 4 conviction. The victims testified that the accused had made “amorous proposals” and had requested “massages” from them.
After the trial, one of the victims told a local newspaper that the accused had “bragged” about his close ties to the Pope.
“He always bragged about being a friend of the Pope and that he talked to him about us,” the unnamed former seminarian told the Argentinian newspaper El Tribuno. “That put pressure on us, because he said, ‘I can close this seminary.’”
Spotlight on Pope Francis
The Argentinian bishops’ conference, where Bishop Zanchetta once worked as a member of the staff, has asked forgiveness from the victims and pledged to do better. But the rapid fall of the well-connected bishop has turned a harsh spotlight on the Pope’s handling of allegations against a priest he reportedly treated as a “spiritual son.”
In contrast to Pope Francis’ historic legacy on bishop-accountability reforms that have led to the removal of prelates credibly accused of abuse or cover-up, he allowed Bishop Zanchetta to remain at the helm of the Diocese of Orán for two years after first receiving allegations of misconduct against him.
The first complaints against Bishop Zanchetta surfaced in 2015, when the diocesan secretary reported that “nude selfies” and improper images of young men had accidentally been found on his phone.
Bishop Zanchetta was called to Rome and discussed allegations of abuse of power, harassment of seminarians and financial mismanagement with the Pope.
Bishop Zanchetta told Francis that his phone had been hacked and that the images were fake and had been produced by enemies of the Pope. Francis gave the bishop the benefit of the doubt and allowed him to return to his post in Orán, as the Pope later explained in a 2019 interview on Mexican television.
In 2016 and 2017, senior priests of the diocese filed formal complaints against the bishop with the papal nuncio in Buenos Aires. Diocesan administrators expressed mounting frustration and anxiety at the Holy See’s failure to take action.
‘Heading Into the Abyss’
By then, recalled former vicar general Father Juan Jose Manzano during a 2019 interview with The Associated Press, “the situation was much more serious, not just because there had been a question about sexual abuses, but because the diocese was increasingly heading into the abyss.”
In July 2017, Bishop Zanchetta finally resigned from his post. A letter to his flock cited “health problems” and plans for unspecified treatment. Neither the bishop nor the Vatican acknowledged the slew of allegations that had forced his departure, and Francis would not do so until 2019.
The bishop was then sent to Spain for psychiatric evaluation and therapy, and no decisive disciplinary action was taken against him. In Spain, he met with Jesuit Father German Arana, a therapist who has treated other bishops sent by Francis, including now-disgraced former Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, accused of protecting the notorious abuser Father Fernando Karadima.
In December 2017, Bishop Zanchetta reportedly moved into the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican hotel where Pope Francis resides. By then, Pope Francis had created a new post for him as assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican office that oversees the Holy See’s real estate properties and other holdings.
The decision to place the troubled bishop at APSA would later stir considerable controversy, given the Vatican’s well-documented struggle to clean up its finances. But analysts say it is not clear whether the bishop held real power, as his position had not previously existed, and his exact duties were not spelled out.
However, a year and a half after his arrival at APSA, the bishop was suspended from his position, and the Holy See approved a preliminary canonical investigation into allegations against him for sexual abuse and abuse of power.
On Jan. 4, 2019, following El Tribuno’s coverage of numerous complaints against the bishop by priests in his former diocese, the Vatican publicly addressed the matter for the first time.
Alessandro Gisotti, then interim director of the Holy See Press Office, told reporters that a preliminary canonical investigation had been launched and that the accused had taken a leave of absence.
The spokesman sought to defend the bishop’s 2017 appointment to APSA, asserting that he had not been forced to resign as bishop of Orán and that the Holy See only learned about the charges of sexual misconduct in 2018. But as the canonical investigation moved forward, El Tribuno poked holes in the Vatican’s initial account of events, making it clear that Francis had known of the claims against the bishop since 2015, not 2018.
In a May 2019 interview with the Mexican television station Televisa, Francis sought to defend his handling of the allegations against Bishop Zanchetta and his reasons for placing him at APSA.
After recalling his 2015 meeting with the bishop that addressed the initial complaints regarding his conduct, the Pope confirmed that he had demanded the bishop’s resignation in 2017.
“I made him come here and asked him to renounce [his position as bishop of Orán],” Francis told Televisa. “I sent him to Spain for a psychiatric test. Some media have said: ‘The Pope gave him a holiday in Spain.’ But he was there to do a psychiatric test, and the test result was okay; they recommended therapy once a month.”
“He had to go to Madrid and have a two-day therapy every month, so it was not convenient to have him return to Argentina. I kept him here because the test showed that he had diagnostic, management and consulting skills,” the Pope continued.
The Pontiff also confirmed that the bishop had been the subject of a preliminary canonical investigation and that the subsequent report was deemed to be serious enough to warrant action by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was in the process of approving a canonical trial.
“Why did I tell all this?” the Pope asked during the television interview. “To tell impatient people, who say, ‘He did nothing,’ that the Pope must not publish what he is doing every day, but from the very first moment of this case, I have not stood by.”
The Pope’s comments about the case in the 2019 Televisa interview revealed that the accused had received an extraordinary degree of personal attention and protection from Francis. And that fact has prompted further concerns from experts.
Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent who served as the first executive director of the Office of Child Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, identified the problem posed by Francis’ repeated personal interventions.
“It is often very difficult for the leader of any organization to make disciplinary decisions about subordinates with whom they have a positive relationship or whom they hold in high regard,” McChesney told the Register. “Better that the leader recuse him/herself from evaluation of the accusation and in determining the appropriate next steps.”
It was not the first time that Francis found his judgment on such matters openly challenged.
Back in 2015, his appointment of Bishop Barros to the Chilean Diocese of Osorno sparked protests from victims who claimed the bishop-elect had covered up for an abusive priest. Three years later, Bishop Barros submitted his resignation to the Pope alongside every other active bishop in Chile at a May 15-17, 2018, meeting between the Pontiff and Chilean prelates, during which Francis chastised the Church leaders for a systematic cover-up of abuse throughout the country. Yet early in his pontificate, Pope Francis took significant action against episcopal abuse, negligence and cover-up.
In 2015, the same year Francis appointed Bishop Zanchetta to the Diocese of Orán, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, following his misdemeanor conviction for failing to report a diocesan priest who had lewd images of children on his computer.
In 2018, after Bishop Zanchetta was installed at APSA, the Pope accepted the resignation of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was accused of sexually abusing a minor but was already notorious for abusing seminarians and young priests under his authority.
In 2020, the same year Bishop Zanchetta was reinstated at APSA, the Vatican issued the McCarrick Report, documenting the Church’s failure to heed warnings about his misconduct from victims, seminary whistleblowers and high-ranking prelates.
Meanwhile, Francis’ 2018 motu proprio, Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), held bishops accountable for negligence in responding to allegations of sexual abuse involving minors and laid out universal procedures for investigating bishops accused of sexually abusing minors or vulnerable adults or of failing to remove others credibly accused.
The contrast between the Pope’s handling of accusations against Bishop Zanchetta and his global campaign for bishop accountability gives the impression that he is straddling “two parallel universes,” Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, an online database of clergy-abuse cases, told the Register.
“At times, he sounds like a victims’ advocate,” calling out “cover-ups” by bishops, Doyle noted.
“But his role in this case is quite disturbing. … What was most troubling was the Vatican’s refusal to cooperate with requests for documents from the canonical process,” she added, referring to the Holy See’s unwillingness to provide materials sought for the trial in Argentina.
By March 16, almost two weeks after Bishop Zanchetta’s conviction, the Vatican still had not clarified the outcome of his canonical trial. And diocesan clergy and laity in Orán are waiting for answers.
Eager for Information
Father Manzano, the former vicar general who described the uphill struggle to remove Zanchetta in a 2019 AP interview, told the Register that local clergy are eager for information about the outcome of the canonical trial and had nothing more say for the present.
“We want to remain in prayer and silence, hoping that this situation will not destroy the unity of the diocese or the faith of our lay brothers and sisters,” said Father Manzano. “We ask everybody to help us pray.”
Father Marcelo Hermida, a priest of the Diocese of Orán involved with youth ministry, expressed his desire to better understand what had happened under Bishop Zanchetta’s watch and his desire to help heal wounds that had been inflicted on the most vulnerable.
“I do not have much knowledge of all the facts, but I adhere to what the justice system says about the guilt of Bishop Zanchetta,” Father Hermida told the Register. “In the Diocese of Orán, we are concerned about the rupture of communion that these events produce, and we may need to learn how to heal these wounds” that especially affect the young and the poor, those who are “especially in need of encountering God.”
Said Father Hermida, “On behalf of the Church as a Catholic priest, I ask forgiveness. Perhaps it is not much for the victims, but we did not know how to take care of them; we did not live up to it and did not accompany them.”
Matias Bocca, EWTN Noticias correspondent in Argentina, CNA staff and Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin contributed to this report.
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