'We were practically nothing to him,' ex-seminarian says of Bishop Zanchetta's abusive behavior

zanchetta smaller 1 Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta. | /ACI Prensa

One of the former seminarians who was the victim of sexual abuse by Argentine Bishop Emeritus Gustavo Zanchetta of Orán says the powerful prelate manipulated young men under his authority with clothing, computers, and other gifts, discriminated against darker-skinned seminarians, and “bragged about being friends” with Pope Francis.

“The truth is that we had a bad time. Although we all entered with the illusion of being priests, of serving people in the name of God, we lived through very hard times, of a lot of discrimination, of a lot of mistreatment and pain because the Church tried to hide everything that happened,” the former seminarian, identified only as “M.C.” told journalist Silvia Noviasky of the newspaper El Tribuno in an exclusive interview.

“M.C.” and another one-time seminarian, identified in court documents as as “G.G.F.L.,” claimed that Zanchetta had made “amorous proposals” and asked them to give him “massages.” An Argentine court on March 4 found Zanchetta guilty of sexual abuse against the two men. Zanchetta was sentenced to 4½ years in prison.

In the El Tribuno interview, “M.C.” described his seven years at the Saint John XXIII seminary under Zanchetta. 

The victim, now 28, entered the seminary when he was 19. He said Zanchetta had a "select group" of young people to whom he offered "jackets, sweatshirts, computers, money."

“In some way, I belonged to that group, but I didn't want to get carried away by everything he did,” he said.

Many of the seminarians in the group came from poor families, he said. “I also come from a family that sometimes did not have enough to eat and, with that knowledge, he manipulated a lot,” the victim said. “He would push you where you were most fragile.”

A ‘friend of the pope’

Zanchetta led the Diocese of Orán, located in northern Argentina, from 2013 until 2017. His episcopal appointment was one of the first done by Pope Francis in his native Argentina. 

Zanchetta stepped down in 2017, claiming “health reasons,” and was subsequently appointed as an assessor at the Vatican’s Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), a specially created position. The APSA oversees the Vatican’s real estate holdings and other sovereign assets. Zanchetta was later suspended, and then controversially reinstated, to that role amid a canonical investigation into his conduct.

In the interview, “M.C.” said Zanchetta used his close relationship with Pope Francis as another means of manipulation.

"He always bragged about being a friend of the Pope and that he talked to him about us,” he told El Tribuno. “That put pressure on us, because he said, 'I can close this seminary,’ [and] 'Don't contradict me because I'm the bishop.'”

The victim described Zanchetta as “a white guy” from Buenos Aires who discriminated against darker-skinned seminarians from northern areas of Argentina.

“We were practically nothing to him,” “M.C.” said in the interview. “He also discriminated against seminarians for being fat or for being 'old’; there were 30-year-old seminarians and he treated them like old men who were useless.”

The decision to speak out

“M.C.” said he began to more fully understand Zanchetta’s abusive behavior after a conversation with a priest toward the end of his time in the seminary.

“I opened my eyes and realized everything we had lived through,” he told the newspaper. “We were very manipulated, we did not understand the dimension of everything he had done and how his process of manipulation began, from insignificant things to [sexual misconduct.]"

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“M.C.” said in the interview that some seminarians were “sad” when Zanchetta announced he was stepping down, adding, “but I didn’t feel anything.”

“[Zanchetta] asked me how I felt. When I told him that I was calm, he became upset because he wanted me to cry, but I did not feel any emotional attachment, especially since I already knew what he had done and that he had been canonically denounced at the Nunciature,” he said.

In February 2019, the Congregation for Bishops instructed Archbishop Carlos Alberto Sánchezj of the Diocese of of Tucumán, Argentina, to conduct a preliminary canonical investigation of the complaints against Zanchetta of sexual abuse and abuse of power. Once the investigation was completed the case moved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"When I decided to denounce him, I didn't know if I was doing the right thing. There was so much pressure in the Church that said, 'Don't do anything, nothing happened, things weren't as you say,’” he explained.

“Sometimes the priests, the bishop (Luis Escozzina from the Diocese of Orán) told me I was exaggerating and today I realize that they tried to cover up and minimize. At one point I thought I was crazy. There was so much pressure because they drilled [these ideas] into my head."

“M.C.” said he took a chance by reporting Zanchetta to the civil authorities.

“I didn't have the money to pay for a lawyer, and I didn't know which lawyer was really going to take the risk in this case, because it was standing up to a Church authority,” he said in the interview. “That is why I really admire the courage of the prosecutor (Soledad Filtrín Cuezzo) who took the risk and defended us until the end.”

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In the wake of Zanchetta’s conviction and sentencing, the former seminarian said, “our personal work continues, the work of healing those wounds that will remain for a lifetime and that are very difficult to heal."

As of March 14 the Vatican had yet to release any statement on Zanchetta's conviction.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA. 

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