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Pope Francis greets Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta.El Tribuno

November 21, 2019 (CatholicCulture.org) — Did you think the McCarrick case hurt Pope Francis' reputation as a reformer? The Zanchetta case is far more damaging.

In January I wrote that the prosecution of Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta was potentially “a fatal blow to the Pope's reputation as a reformer,” since it was Pope Francis — clearly, unequivocally, personally — who promoted and protected the Argentine prelate. Now a prosecutor in Argentina has issued an international appeal for Zanchetta's arrest, fearing that the troubled bishop may drop out of sight to avoid prosecution — if he hasn't done so already. So the question is whether the Pope is, even now, sheltering an accused bishop from prosecution.

A quick recap of the story to date:

  • In July 2013, Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta as Bishop of Oran, Argentina. This was one of the new Pope's first appointments, and in this case he was not merely ratifying someone else's choice. The Pope, as former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was well acquainted with Zanchetta, who had served on the staff of the Argentinean bishops' conference in Argentina.
  • Barely four years later, in August 2017, Bishop Zanchetta resigned, citing health reasons, at the age of 53. At the time — and to this date — he has shown no signs of ill health. Vatican officials said that he had been encouraged to resign because of his deficiencies as an administrator.
  • A few months later, Pope Francis brought Zanchetta to Rome as “assessor” at the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the agency at the center of recent financial scandals. Even at first glance the appointment was remarkable: why was a new position created, at an agency already in the spotlight, for a bishop with questionable administrative skills?
  • Then last December, El Tribuno reported that Zanchetta had been charged with sexual abuse. According to the Argentine newspaper, the charge dated back to 2015, and would explain his removal from the Oran diocese. The Vatican claimed that the charges had only recently come to light. But a former vicar-general of Oran confirmed that reports had been sent to Rome in 2015 and again in 2016.
  • In May of this year, Pope Francis told reporters that he had been persuaded Bishop Zanchetta was innocent — that incriminating photos had been faked, and that hackers had stored gay porn on the bishop's cell phone.
  • In June, prosecutors in Argentina, not so willing to accept the bishop's excuses, brought criminal charges against Zanchetta. He was allowed to return to Rome, on the promise that he would return to face trial, because Vatican officials certified that he was employed there — although by this time he was suspended from his post at APSA.

And now the prosecutor in Argentina wonders whether Bishop Zanchetta will come home to face trial. She had argued against allowing the bishop to travel to Rome, noting that “there is no extradition agreement with the Holy See.” Now the accused bishop is not responding to legal notices, she reports.

If you can concoct an innocent explanation for the facts detailed above — a hypothesis that corresponds with the Pope's frequent protestations that he is determined to stop clerical abuse — please let me know. I can't.

Published with permission from CatholicCulture.org.