The Argentinian Church and the Vatican are reeling after a court in Argentina jailed a Catholic bishop for four and a half years last week for sexual abuse of two former seminarians. It is a major blow to Pope Francis, who knew him well, had appointed him bishop and defended him following initial allegations.
Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, 58, pleaded not guilty to charges but was convicted on 4 March and detained immediately. The court in the north-western town of Orán, where he was bishop from 2013 to 2017, heard two victims report that Zanchetta had made “amorous proposals” and had requested “massages”.
According to Argentinian newspaper El Tribuno, problems surfaced in 2015 when a church official discovered sexually explicit images that were sent and received on Zanchetta’s mobile phone. The pictures included obscene photographs of the bishop and of young people and authorities were alerted. Pope Francis summoned Zanchetta to Rome and reportedly accepted his explanation that his phone had been hacked and that allegations against him were motivated by anti-Pope Francis sentiment.
Then in 2016 five priests made a formal accusation before church authorities, accusing Zanchetta of authoritarianism, financial mismanagement and sexual abuse at a seminary. He stepped down in 2017, claiming “health reasons”. Pope Francis removed him to the Vatican and gave him a job in one of the most sensitive Vatican offices, the treasury that manages the Holy See’s investments and assets. Argentinian authorities investigated after allegations emerged publicly in 2019 and Zanchetta returned from Rome to face charges.
The trial in Argentina was delayed four months at the request of the defence attorney who wanted to wait for the files of a separate Vatican canon law investigation. The Vatican has not yet publicised information on this process.
The conviction in the pope’s homeland hits at Pope Francis’s personal credibility. He kept Zanchetta in a Vatican job and residence just as he was convening a global summit of the world’s bishops to address episcopal accountability. The Pope’s reluctance to act on allegations against Zanchetta has echoes of the 2018 scandal over a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse, accusations Francis initially rejected before he eventually apologised to victims.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccounability.org, which tracks clerical abuse cases, described the jailing of Zanchetta as “a sign that even where the Catholic Church wields power, civil societies increasingly will not tolerate sexual abuse of young adults by powerful figures – even if the accused is a Catholic bishop, and even if that bishop is supported by Pope Francis himself”.