Why the Zanchetta case matters for the Church

GustavoZanchetta DiocesisOran20112019 1 1 Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta. | Diocesis de Orán

The Vatican made no public comment when Bishop Gustavo Óscar Zanchetta, an Argentine prelate closely associated with Pope Francis, was sentenced to four and a half years in jail for sexually abusing seminarians on March 4. A week later, it still hasn’t.

There are two possible reasons for the Vatican’s silence. First, because a canonical trial of Zanchetta is still open and the Vatican plans to comment only once it is concluded. Second, because the bishop intends to appeal against the court judgment. The Holy See has previously waited for the results of an appeal before issuing a public response.

Zanchetta was one of the first bishops appointed by Pope Francis after his election on March 13, 2013. Zanchetta was named bishop of Orán, in northwestern Argentina, on July 23 of that year, at the age of 49.

In the summer of 2017, he stepped aside as bishop, officially because of “a health problem” — or so he wrote in a letter to his flock, in which he said that he would soon undergo treatment.

The resignation was made official on Aug. 1, 2017, after Zanchetta had already left Argentina for Rome, where he lived in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican hotel where Pope Francis resides.

On Dec. 19, 2017, the bishop was appointed assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), the Vatican’s “central bank.” The post was created especially for him, although there were rumors of financial mismanagement during his tenure in Orán.

Zanchetta was suspended from his Vatican post on Jan. 4, 2019, following the announcement of a preliminary investigation into accusations that he committed sexual abuse. Alessandro Gisotti, the then interim director of the Holy See press office, stressed that Zanchetta had stepped down as bishop because of “his difficulties in directing the diocesan clergy and strained relations with the priests.”

When Pope Francis granted an interview to the Mexican television station Televisa on May 28, 2019, the Zanchetta case had already received wide coverage in Argentina, with a series of investigative articles published in El Tribuno, a newspaper based in Salta, detailing abuse allegations. Pope Francis, therefore, decided to explain his decision-making publicly during the interview.

He said: “There had been an accusation and, before asking him to resign, I had him come here immediately with the person who accused him. In the end, he defended himself by saying that his cell phone had been hacked. So in the face of evidence and a good defense, the doubt remains, but in dubio pro reo [in doubt, for the accused]. And the cardinal of Buenos Aires came to be a witness to everything. And I continued to follow him in a particular way.”

“Of course,” the pope continued, “[Zanchetta] had a way of dealing, according to some, despotic, authoritarian, economic management of things that is not entirely clear, it seems, but this has not been proven.”

“There is no doubt that the clergy did not feel well treated by him. They complained until they made a complaint to the nunciature as clergy. I called the nunciature, and the nuncio said to me: ‘Look, the issue of reporting abuse is serious,’ abuse of power, we could say. They didn’t call it that, but this was it.”

“I made him come here and asked him to renounce. Nice and clear. 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 OK; 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. Some have interpreted it here in Italy as a ‘parking lot.’”

Pope Francis went on to explain that Zanchetta “was economically disordered, but he did not manage the works he did badly economically.”

“He was messy, but the vision was good,” he said. “So I started looking for a successor. Once the new bishop was installed, I decided to start the preliminary investigation of the accusations leveled against him. I have appointed the archbishop of Tucumán. The Congregation for Bishops has proposed various names to me. So I called the president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, I had him choose, and he said that the best choice for that position was the archbishop of Tucumán.”

The pope continued: “The preliminary investigation has officially arrived. I read it and saw that it was necessary to go through a trial. So I passed it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They are in the process.”

“Why did I tell all this? 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.”

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“There are very long cases, which need more time, like this one, and now I explain why. Because, for one reason or another, I did not have the necessary elements, but today a process is underway in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In other words, I didn’t stop.”

As the case proceeded toward trial, Zanchetta traveled back and forth between Rome and Argentina. In June 2020, he resumed work at APSA. But his assignment ended in June 2021, after which he returned home.

While the criminal trial in Argentina has concluded, there is no news of the canonical trial launched by the Vatican as early as 2019. Ahead of Zanchetta’s trial, Argentine prosecutors had asked for the files of the Vatican investigation. Having not received them, they decided to proceed regardless.

So will we have to wait for the end of the canonical process against Zanchetta to receive an official word from the Holy See? Maybe. But it’s also possible that the pope will decide to say a few words informally, perhaps during the in-flight press conference on his return from Malta on April 3.

The Holy See has not often commented on criminal sentences. It did not even do so in the case of Cardinal George Pell, who was unjustly condemned to prison in 2018, before Australia’s High Court unanimously overturned his conviction for five counts of alleged sexual abuse in 2020.

In such cases, the Vatican is seeking to avoid disputing judicial proceedings, while expressing its closeness to people who are presumed to be innocent.

Pell remained a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals until his mandate expired. It was not renewed because he was over 75, the age at which a bishop customarily retires.

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In one declaration, the Holy See press office stressed that it held the Australian judicial system in the highest esteem, but at the same time, it was necessary to consider that Pell maintained his innocence and the appeal trial was pending.

The Holy See also confirmed the activated measures: that the cardinal could not publicly exercise his priestly ministry and had to avoid contact with minors.

In that same declaration, it was not mentioned that Pell was no longer the prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy. Only later did the Holy See press office confirm that Pell no longer held his position in the Roman Curia.

This had the effect of underlining that Pell’s post in the Curia had reached its natural expiration date and was not taken away in response to the Australian court’s decision. This turned out to be a winning position after Pell's exoneration.

The Vatican took a different approach with another Australian prelate: Archbishop Philip Wilson. This case is the one most similar to Zanchetta’s.

In 2018, the archbishop was convicted of concealing abuse committed by a priest named James Fletcher who had served in the same diocese as Wilson in the 1970s. Wilson was sentenced to 12 months of house arrest and presented his resignation as archbishop of Adelaide to Pope Francis, who accepted it.

A judge then overturned the sentence because there was reasonable doubt that the crime had been committed.

The judge stressed that “the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in terms of its historical self-protective approach,” but “it is not for me to punish the Catholic Church for its institutional moral deficits, or to punish Philip Wilson for the sins of the now deceased James Fletcher by finding Philip Wilson guilty, simply on the basis that he is a Catholic priest.”

The outcome of Zanchetta’s appeal remains to be seen. But Pope Francis’ pattern of behavior related to such cases is now well established.

On the one hand, he has shown determination in addressing the scourge of abuse in the Church. On the other, he has emphasized repeatedly that the issue of abuse is also a weapon used against the Church.

Concluding a summit on abuse in Rome in 2019, he said that “the Church’s aim will thus be to hear, watch over, protect and care for abused, exploited and forgotten children, wherever they are.”

To achieve that goal, he added, “the Church must rise above the ideological disputes and journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones.”

The pope also stressed that “the time has come to find a correct equilibrium of all values ​​in play and to provide uniform directives for the Church,” avoiding the two extremes of a justicialism, “provoked by guilt for past errors and media pressure, and a defensiveness that fails to compare the causes and effects of these grave crimes.”

Therefore, the pope recognized that there is also external pressure on cases of abuse and a need for a balance in handling accusations.

But how is this balance exercised? Zanchetta was a friend of the pope, who placed extraordinary trust in him. Nevertheless, when the trial in Argentina was about to start, the pope did not hesitate to let the bishop go. Until the last, however, Zanchetta was able to work at the Vatican, according to the principle of in dubio pro reo.

Yet the same treatment was not extended to the French Archbishop Michel Aupetit, who was not accused of abuse but rather of engaging in an improper relationship, as well as being divisive and authoritarian (accusations he denied).

Returning from his trip to Greece, Pope Francis said that he had accepted the Paris archbishop’s resignation “not on the altar of truth, but the altar of hypocrisy,” suggesting that public attacks on Aupetit’s reputation had made it difficult for him to govern the archdiocese.

For a similar reason, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki has asked to resign as archbishop of Cologne after taking a six-month sabbatical after the Vatican found that he had made the error of “miscommunication” regarding a report on abuse in the archdiocese.

These cases are thought-provoking because they suggest that two different weights and measures are being used.

Pope Francis has sought to strengthen anti-pedophilia measures further, even going so far as to abolish the pontifical secret. The new rules on the most severe crimes, published in December 2021, tried to harmonize the various actions taken by Pope Francis to counter abuse.

But the Zanchetta case is an example of how the pope can make mistakes when he trusts people. If there is no consistency in approaching these cases, then it isn’t easy to find justice.

It is also striking that ordinary justice was much faster than the canonical judgment, pointing to understaffing at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handles abuse cases.

One might think that the recent reform of the Congregation’s structure, creating an autonomous disciplinary section, would serve precisely to overcome this impasse. But will the result be greater collaboration with the civil authorities, or will this total division remain?

These are not marginal issues because they touch on the essence of canon law and the sovereignty of the Holy See.

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