An Argentine bishop who worked at the Vatican will face an abuse trial. What happened?

A Pillar Explainer

Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta is set to stand trial this October on charges of sexual abuse against two unnamed former seminarians, aggrevated by his status as a religious minister. 

The former executive head of the Argentine bishops’ conference and bishop of the Diocese of Oran, Zanchetta has spent the last several years living in Rome, working in a Vatican post created for him by the pope. 

Because Zanchetta is known to be a close friend of Pope Francis, his trial, set to begin October 12, will likely capture media attention across Argentina as well from the Vatican. So, to catch you up on the case, here’s what we know so far:

Who is Bishop Zanchetta?

Born in 1964, Zanchetta was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Quilmes in 1991. He later served as executive undersecretary of the Argentine bishops’ conference, and in that role he worked closely with then-Cardinal Jorge Bergolio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who led the conference from 2005-2011. 

In 2013, the newly-elected Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta the BIshop of Oran, one of the first episcopal nominations made by the pope. In 2017, Zanchetta resigned from that office at the age of 53 — 22 years before the normal age. 

Zanchetta initially cited health reasons for his early retirement, but there was much more to the story. 

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What is Zanchetta accused of?

The official charges against Zanchetta in Argentina are "aggravated continuous sexual abuse" of two adult seminarians, as well as financial mismanagement of Church funds, including fraud.

In January 2019, the Vatican announced that it had received complaints of sexual abuse against Zanchetta in late 2018. But later that month, Zanchetta’s former vicar general in Oran, Fr. Juan Jose Manzano, told the AP that the Vatican had been presented with allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians and financial misconduct by Zanchetta as early as 2015, and again in 2017, shortly before the bishop presented his resignation.

Manzano said that as early as 2015, Church authorities were alerted that Zanchetta had sent sexually explicit “selfies” on his cell phone, and received “obscene” images of young men in sexual contact. The images reportedly came to light after they were discovered by an archdiocesan secretary. 

The allegations were substantially supported by a February 2019 report in The Tribune, a local Argentine newspaper, which published documents apparently illustrating that a formal complaint had been made against Zanchetta by three of his diocesan vicars, including Manzano, as well as two other senior diocesan priests, and that Pope Francis had summoned the bishop to Rome to discuss the matter. 

According to Manzano, “the Holy Father summoned Zanchetta [to Rome] 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 Tribune also detailed complaints made against Zanchetta by priests of his own diocese in 2017, which included financial mismanagement, as well as direct accusations of harassment of seminarians made by the seminary rector. 

The complaints were reportedly made to the apostolic nunciature in Buenos Aires in May and June of 2017. In July, Zanchetta was again summoned to Rome and on July 29 he resigned for “health reasons.”

In November 2019, the El Oranense newspaper reported that the financial crime unit of the local police had raided the diocesan chancery in relation to allegations of fraud against the local government by Zanchetta.

Public records indicate that as bishop, Zanchetta received more than $10,000 from the Salta Province for seminary lectures which never took place and for the renovation of a rectory which was never completed. 

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Where did Zanchetta go?

Shortly after Francis accepted his resignation in 2017, the pope appointed Zanchetta to the role of assessor at the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, which functions as the Vatican’s sovereign wealth manager, and government reserve bank and paymaster. Zanchetta was also reported to be living at the Domus Sanctae Marta, the Vatican hotel and retreat house where Pope Francis also lives.

In 2019, the Vatican acknowledged allegations of sexual abuse against Zanchetta and announced he was taking a leave of absence from his position at APSA. 

But the bishop returned to Vatican work in early 2020, despite ongoing criminal and canonical investigations into the allegations against him. 

Earlier this summer, it was reported that Zanchetta had left his role at APSA in June and apparently left Vatican City, ahead of the announcement of criminal proceedings in Argentina last week. 

What has the Vatican said?

Despite the claims of local clergy like Fr. Manzano and subsequent media reports on the 2015 and 2017 accusations against Zanchetta, the Vatican first publicly acknowledged accusations of sexual abuse against the bishop in January 2019, saying they had recieved the complaints in autumn 2018. 

The Vatican also announced that a canonical investigation was underway to examine the allegations, and that Zanchetta had been suspended from his role at APSA - a suspension which proved temporary.

In comments and responses from the Holy See press office in February, official Vatican spokesmen insisted that no accusations of sexual abuse had been made against Zanchetta at the time the pope created a role for him at APSA in December 2017.

Zanchetta’s case came to widespread public attention in January 2019, coinciding with preparations for the historic summit of the world’s bishops in Rome, convened by Pope Francis to discuss the sexual abuse crisis in February of that year. 

That summit was convened after a year of scandal including the announcement of accusations of sexual abuse against former cardinal Theodore McCarrick in June, 2018. It also followed the international scandal triggered by allegations of systemic sexual abuse and cover-up by Church authorities in Chile, which led to all the bishops of the country offering the pope their resignations simultaneously in May 2018. 

What’s the role of Pope Francis in all of this?

Critics of the pope have said that Pope Francis ignored or downplayed initial reports of Zanchetta’s misconduct, creating a Vatican position for him even after evidence emerged that the bishop had acted in serially inappropriate ways.

The pope, however, said in May 2019 that he was aware of inappropriate images on Zanchetta’s phone at the time the bishop resigned, but said he had initially given Zanchetta the benefit of the doubt, after the bishop said that his phone had been hacked. 

“Before I asked him to resign, there was an accusation and I immediately made him come to me here with the person who accused him and explain it,” the pope said, confirming that after accepting Zanchetta’s resignation because he had lost the ability to govern the clergy of the diocese, he sent the bishop for psychiatric evaluation in Spain.

The pope said that he had ordered a preliminary investigation into Zanchetta after his resignation, and he has since ordered a canonical trial to be conducted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

While there has been no announced conclusion to the CDF process, Zanchetta returned to work in 2020, before leaving again in June of this year.

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What happens next?

Zanchetta’s criminal trial in Argentina is slated to begin on October 12. 

While the status and outcome of his canonical process at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith remains unknown, it is common practice for canonical courts to pause their proceedings pending the conclusion of civil trials treating the same accusations, and to resume their work after a civil court has made its own verdict.