Bishop promoted by Pope Francis pledges to return to Argentina to face sex abuse accusations
VATICAN CITY, November 25, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) ― A bishop promoted by Pope Francis and who now stands accused of having assaulted seminarians will appear in an Argentine court on Wednesday to face charges after a prosecutor in Argentina had asked for international assistance in apprehending him.
Fr. Javier Belda Iniesta, the spokesman and canon lawyer for Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, 55, informed Argentinian newspaper La Nacion that both he and the bishop will travel to Argentina. They will land Tuesday at an airport near Salta, the capital of the province of Salta, and the bishop will attend his November 27 court date.
Zanchetta was at the center of a new controversy last week when prosecutor María Soledad Filtrín Cuezzo asked for international assistance in the bishop’s arrest. Cuezzo had alleged that Zanchetta had not answered official emails and phone calls. The bishop’s spokesman subsequently issued a statement saying Zanchetta had not received any message requesting a response and he had always kept his court dates.
La Nacion reported that Zanchetta has again asserted, through his spokesman, his “total availability” to the judicial process and denied being “in rebellion” against it. He repeated his declaration that he is innocent of the charges against him and also that he is not a fugitive from justice but living “in the residence indicated to the authorities when he was summoned by them.”
The bishop resides in the Casa Santa Marta, the modern Vatican City hotel in which Pope Francis also lives.
Zanchetta was appointed the Bishop of the Argentinian Diocese of Nueva Orán by Pope Francis in August 2013, just over four months after the pontiff’s election. According to Associated Press (AP), the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires knew Zanchetta well. The priest had been the executive undersecretary of the Argentine bishops conference, of which the then-Cardinal Bergoglio was president from 2005 to 2011. The pontiff was described by Zanchetta’s former vicar general as the bishop’s “confessor” and Zanchetta as Francis’ “spiritual son.”
Zanchetta’s tenure as bishop of Nueva Orán was short. He resigned his post in August 2017, citing “a health problem” that did not allow him to “fully carry out” his pastoral ministry ―“especially given the vast extent of diocesan territory, and the enormous challenges we have as a Church in the north of the country,” he wrote. Pope Francis accepted his resignation and created a role for him in Rome as the “Assessor” of the Holy See’s financial management office, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.
But Zanchetta was dogged by something other than ill health: accusations of sexual misconduct starting in 2015. Warnings of his “strange behavior” began when photos of young men engaging in homosexual sex and “naked selfies” of Zanchetta were found on the bishop’s cellphone.
Chancellor Secretary Luis Amancio Díaz discovered the pictures after Zanchetta asked him to copy a folder of photos from the phone in order to post several of them on the diocesan Facebook page. This incident was reported indirectly to the Vatican by the former vicar general of the diocese of Nueva Orán, Fr. Juan José Manzano.
“It was an alarm that we made to the Holy See via some friendly bishops,” he said.
“The nunciature didn’t intervene directly, but the Holy Father summoned Zanchetta and he justified himself saying that his cellphone had been hacked, and that there were people who were out to damage the image of the Pope.”
In an interview he gave to AP, Mazano said Zanchetta returned to his diocese so much “improved” that “no one even investigated how those photos got to Rome.” As time passed, however, the bishop “became more aggressive and took impulsive decisions, manipulating facts, people, influences to reach his goals.”
Manzano told the AP that Zanchetta started visiting the seminary at all hours, drinking with the seminarians, and taking a seminarian with him whenever he visited a parish, even without asking the rector for permission.
“The rector tried to keep the students in order, being present when the bishop appeared, but the monsignor looked for ways to avoid his attention and to discredit him in front of the young guys,” Manzano told the AP in an email.
“The bad feeling was aggravated when some of them left the seminary. It was then that the rector investigated and warned of harassment and inappropriate behavior.”
The rector, Manzano, and another priest brought the matter to Monsignor Vincenzo Turturro, the deputy to the papal nuncio for Argentina, in May or June of 2017. As a result, Pope Francis requested Zanchetta’s return to Rome that July. Upon returning home, Zanchetta wrote his resignation letter. Pope Francis appointed him to his new role in Rome that December.
However, the Vatican stated twice that it didn’t know until 2018 that allegations of sexual misconduct had been made against Zanchetta. Meanwhile, Pope Francis’ continued patronage of the bishop has led some commentators, including Phil Lawler, to doubt the pontiff’s commitment to combating clerical sex abuse.
A civil investigation into Zanchetta’s conduct began in February 2019. On June 10, Zanchetta was formally charged with sexual assault, and he was forbidden to leave Argentina. However, on August 28, despite the protests of prosecutor Cuezzo, his travel ban was lifted and he flew to Rome. Zanchetta had been allowed to leave Argentina because he had a document saying he had a position in Vatican City. In reality, Zanchetto had been suspended from his job since January.
According to Catholic New Agency, Cuezzo said she had had to ask the apostolic nuncio to Argentina for help in getting Zanchetta to appear in court for his hearings.
On November 7, Nueva Orań’s Economic Crime Unit raided the diocese’s offices. The bishop emeritus is also now being accused of fraud, embezzling diocesan charity funds, and selling church property.