The former Bishop of Oran, Argentina, was sentenced Friday to four and a half years in prison for the sexual abuse of two former seminarians. Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta was convicted of simple sexual abuse aggravated by his position as a minister of religion, in a decision handed down by judges in his former diocese.
The bishop returned to Argentina in the summer of 2021 to face the charges, after he spent years living and working in the Vatican. After Zanchetta resigned from diocesan leadership in scandal, Pope Francis created a special post for the bishop in APSA, the Holy See’s sovereign asset manager and reserve bank.
After he was sentenced Friday, Zanchetta was remanded directly to the custody of corrections officials; he will be immediately held in a regional facility and transferred within days to the Argentine prison where he will serve his sentence.
Zanchetta’s trial took place over three weeks. While the bishop pled not guilty and maintained his innocence, victims and witnesses testified that in 2016, Zanchetta abused seminarians at John XXIII Seminary, and at his own residence.
In addition to particular abuses, the bishop serially pressured seminarians to engage in sexual conduct, displayed pornographic selfies and other images on his phone, and pushed seminarians for massages and other contact while supplying them with alcohol, according to testimony at trial.
Argentine prosecutors had requested that Zanchetta be sentenced to more than four years incarceration, telling judges Thursday that trial testimony established “the veracity, plausibility, and credibility of the victims.”
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Zanchetta’s trial followed years of allegations against the bishop concerning sexual misconduct, as well as financial impropriety during his tenure as Bishop of Oran.
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, though it later emerged that senior clergy in the diocese had complained, for years, about the bishop’s conduct, leading to charges of “aggravated continuous sexual abuse” of two adult seminarians for which he was convicted on March 4.
In January 2019, the Vatican announced that it had received complaints of sexual abuse against Zanchetta months earlier, 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 to Pope Francis.
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 engaged 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 by 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 2017. In July, Zanchetta was again summoned to Rome, and on July 29, 2017, he resigned from diocesan leadership for “health reasons.”
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.
When the Vatican acknowledged allegations of sexual abuse against Zanchetta in 2019, it also announced the bishop was taking a leave of absence from his position at APSA. Vatican officials also said that a canonical investigation was underway to examine the allegations against the bishop.
But Zanchetta returned to Vatican work in early 2020, despite ongoing criminal and canonical investigations into the allegations against him.
Zanchetta left his role at APSA in June 2021, leaving Vatican City ahead of his trial, which began Feb. 21 of this year.
Ahead of the trial, which was originally slated to begin in October last year, Zanchetta’s attorneys subpoenaed the Vatican’s files pertaining to the canonical investigation and trial of Zanchetta at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the trial in Argentina was delayed while the court waited for those documents, according to a report by The Tribune.
Despite measures taken by Pope Francis to declassify Church reports on cases of sexual abuse, including a 2020 Vatican policy requiring diocesan bishops to cooperate with judicial orders for Church documents, the Zanchetta files did not arrive in Argentina, and the Argentine judges elected to proceed with the trial without them.