The Vatican received information in 2015 and 2017 that an Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis had taken naked selfies and been accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians, according to the bishop’s former deputy.
In 2017, the Pope accepted Gustavo Zanchetta’s resignation as bishop of the Diocese of Oran after complaints were made by his priests about his authoritarian leadership.
But Fr Juan Jose Manzano, Oran’s vicar general, told AP that details about abuses of power, inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment of adult seminarians were also lodged against Zanchetta with the Vatican before his resignation.
Fr Manzano pointed out, however, these were not formal canonical complaints.
Some months after his resignation, Bishop Zanchetta, 54, was appointed by the Pope as the “assessor” at APSA (The Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See), the equivalent of the Holy See’s treasury which manages Vatican real estate and investments.
A year later he was suspended from that post pending an investigation into formal allegations of abuse. Those abuse claims – believed to be concerning seminarians – are now being investigated by the Diocese of Oran and the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
In a 4 January statement, interim Holy See spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said that Bishop Zanchetta had resigned in 2017 due to a failure to govern his clergy and that the abuse allegations against the bishop only emerged in the autumn of 2018. Gisotti explained that Zanchetta was appointed to APSA on the grounds of his administrative abilities and that the role was not one that gave him executive responsibility.
On Tuesday 22 January, Gisotti issued another statement saying that "resolutely" repeated what was said on the 4 January, adding that there had been "misleading reconstructions" of the case.
"In addition, I emphasize that the case is being studied and when this process is over, information will be forthcoming regarding the results," he said.
In an interview with AP and local newspaper El Tribuno, Fr Manzano defended Francis’ handling of the case, saying the Pope was a victim of Zanchetta’s “manipulation”.
“There was never any intent to hide anything. There was never any intent of the Holy Father to defend him against anything,” Fr Manzano said.
He also denied any contradiction with the Vatican’s 3 January statement, as he distinguished between a report about alleged sexual abuse and a formal complaint.
Fr Manzano explained that the first concerns about Zanchetta concerned selfies.
“In 2015, we just sent a ‘digital support’ with selfie photos of the previous bishop in obscene or out of place behaviour that seemed inappropriate and dangerous,” he explained.
“It was an alarm that we made to the Holy See via some friendly bishops. 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.”
The Pope named Zanchetta as bishop of Oran, just over 1,000 miles northwest of Buenos Aires in 2013 in one of his first Argentine bishop appointments as Pope. Zanchetta and he knew each other well: Francis had reportedly acted as a confessor to Zanchetta who also worked as a senior official at the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina, which Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was president of from 2005-2011.
Then, during the middle of 2017, the rector of the seminary and another priest presented their concerns to the second in command at the Holy See embassy to Argentina who forwarded them to the Vatican.
The Pope summoned Zanchetta again in July 2017, and on 29 July the bishop announced his resignation saying he needed treatment for a health problem.