January 11, 2018 (L'Espresso) – Tough times for the new squad of the pope's press agents. The first public statement that Alessandro Gisotti, the new director of the press office of the Holy See, released after embarking on his role concerns the case of an Argentine bishop (in the photo) who is in danger of smashing to smithereens the strategy that Francis has adopted for addressing the question of sexual abuse committed by sacred ministers.
It is the strategy that also inspires the letter that the pope sent at the new year to the bishops of the United States gathered for spiritual exercises in view of the summit that will bring to Rome from February 21 to 24 the presidents of all the episcopal conferences of the world.
In this letter as well, in fact, as he had previously done with the bishops of Chile, Francis places himself on the side of the powerless and the victims of power, meaning the innocent “people of God,” against the clerical caste that indeed abuses sex, but in his judgment abuses more than anything else and first of all nothing other than “power.”
It doesn't matter that in the case of Chile Francis himself was the one who, to the very end and against all the evidence, defended the innocence of bishops whom he finally had to acknowledge as being guilty. Nor does it matter that in the case of the United States he stands accused of having given cover and honors to a cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, in spite of knowing about his reprehensible homosexual activity. In both cases Francis absolved himself either by blaming those who had advised him badly or by refusing to respond to those who – like former nuncio in the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò – personally called him to account. And also at the summit at the end of February he was getting ready to reproduce this typically populist dynamic, with himself in the guise of purifier of a clerical caste soiled by power.
But now that the case of Argentine bishop Gustavo Óscar Zanchetta has exploded, all of that becomes more difficult for the pope.
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The case was brought up on Christmas Day by the Argentine newspaper “El Tribuno,” breaking the news that three priests of the diocese of Orán had reported their bishop, Zanchetta, to the apostolic nuncio for sexual abuse against a dozen seminarians, and also that for this reason, on August 1 of 2017, the pope had removed the bishop from the diocese.
In replying on January 4 to this news and to the resulting questions from journalists, Vatican press office director Gisotti stated that Zanchetta “was not removed,” but that “it was he who resigned”; that the accusations of sexual abuse “go back to this autumn” and not before; that the results of the investigation underway in Argentina “have yet to arrive at the congregation for bishops”; and that in any case “during the preliminary investigation Bishop Zanchetta will abstain from the work” that he currently performs at the Vatican, as assessor for the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.
Meanwhile, this suspension from work imposed on Zanchetta already leads one to think that at the Vatican the accusations of sexual abuse are viewed as serious. But even leaving aside the date on which these accusations are said to have been forwarded to the competent ecclesiastical authorities – in autumn of 2018 according to the Vatican press office, in 2015 according to what was reconfirmed by “El Tribuno” – it is the entire affair of this bishop that puts the behavior of Pope Francis in a bad light.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected successor of Peter, Zanchetta was an ordinary priest – who was however well known to him, in that for years he had been executive undersecretary of the Argentine episcopal conference headed by Bergoglio himself, known and also appreciated, to the point that Zanchetta was one of the very first Argentines whom the new pope promoted as bishop, on his own initiative, bypassing all canonical procedure, on July 23, 2013, at the head of the diocese of Orán, in the north of the country.
But Zanchetta didn't last long as bishop of Orán because of “very strained relations with the priests of the diocese,” which earned him “accusations of authoritarianism” and made manifest his “inability to govern,” the Holy See now recognizes, according to the statements from Gisotti.
The fact is that on July 29, 2017, Zanchetta suddenly disappeared, without any farewell Mass and without any goodbye to his priests and faithful. He only made it known, from an unspecified location, that he had health problems that needed urgent care elsewhere and that he had just returned to Rome, where he had placed his mandate back in the hands of Pope Francis – who very promptly, on August 1, accepted his resignation.
Zanchetta was for a brief time the guest of the bishop of the diocese of Corrientes, 500 miles to the south, Andrés Stanovnik, the same one who had ordained him, only to reappear in Spain, in Madrid, apparently in good health.
Curiously, the capital of Spain is the destination to which Francis had directed two years before, in 2015, the Chilean bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid – before promoting him as bishop of Osorno against the opinion of the higher-ups of the Chilean Church and of the nunciature – for a month of spiritual exercises preached by the famous Spanish Jesuit Germán Arana, one of the pope's most influential advisors in many episcopal appointments, and in this case a tenacious defender of the innocence of Barros, who had already been hit with very weighty accusations of sexual abuse.
The fact is that Zanchetta's trip to Madrid was also the prelude to his promotion by Bergoglio, who on December 19, 2017 called him to the Vatican to do nothing less than manage the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, APSA, in the new and tailor-made role of “assessor.”
The APSA is the true mainstay of the Vatican administration. In addition to possessing substantial liquid and illiquid assets, it plays a role that is comparable to that of a central bank, so much so that the financial reorganization of the Holy See that Francis entrusted at the beginning of his pontificate to Australian cardinal George Pell had none other than the APSA at the heart of the reform. But then Pell was forced to abandon the undertaking, his reform did not come into port and the APSA became the landing place for characters devoid of administrative competence, who failed in their previous roles, but whom Bergoglio wanted to keep close by, his friends and protégés. The latest case is that of Archbishop Nunzio Galantino, formerly the controversial secretary general of the Italian episcopal conference and now the president of the APSA.
When Zanchetta left Orán, the Argentine media described the financial disorder in which he had left the diocese. But that did not disturb in the least his promotion to the ASPSA “in consideration of his administrative managerial capacity,” as pontifical spokesman Gisotti made a point of saying in his statement of last January 4, before asserting that in any case “no accusation of sexual abuse had emerged at the time of [his] appointment as assessor.”
Whether it is true or not that the accusations instead date back to 2015, as reiterated by the Argentine press in reporting the words of the authors of the charge, the fact remains that the treatment reserved by Pope Francis for Zanchetta is astonishing, on account of the incredible lack of “discernment” in evaluating the person, repeatedly promoted to prominent positions in spite of his evident unreliability.
Not an isolated case – but one that suffices on its own to contradict the postulate of the unfamiliarity and innocence of Pope Francis in the face of the abuses of power, rather than of sex as he puts it, by the clerical caste.
The risk is that the summit scheduled at the Vatican from February 21 to 24 – in terms of how it will reverberate in public opinion – may find Bergoglio not in the role of unspotted guide, but himself as well in the dock of those guilty of having tolerated and covered up abuse.
This article originally appeared in L'Espresso. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.