Catholics of the Diocese of Oran, Argentina, gathered in the city’s main square Tuesday and Wednesday to protest the decision to allow their disgraced former bishop, Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, to live in a retired priests’ home while serving his sentence for the sexual abuse of seminarians.
The protests focus on the Church’s handling of Zanchetta’s case, following his conviction by a civil court in March on charges of sexual abuse against two seminarians, aggravated by his position as a minister of religion.
Despite his conviction and being sentenced to four and a half years in prison, Bishop Zanchetta has received no public sanction from the Church, and the results of a canonical process initiated in 2019 have not been announced.
On July 8, Zanchetta was released from prison on medical grounds to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest and moved into the Monastery of Our Lady of the Valley in his former diocese. The monastery serves as a home for retired priests.
Protesters this week gathered signatures against the decision to allow Zanchetta to live in the monastery which they say is “untimely, arbitrary” and decided “without consultation and with a manifest lack of consideration for the seminarians and the parishioners.”
They are asking the archbishop to revisit the arrangement “out of respect for the victims and their families, who feel mocked with this decision of house arrest,” and whom, they said, “cannot begin a path of healing” in the current circumstances.
Organizers told local media they will present their petition against Zanchettta’s living arrangements to the metropolitan Archbishop Mario Cargnello of Salta. Local activists said they took the decision to write to the archbishop after receiving no response to their concerns from Zanchetta’s successor in the Diocese of Oran, Bishop Luis Scozzina.
Zanchetta’s case, and the lack of public action to censure him by the Vatican, has raised criticism from local Catholics and drawn international attention because of Pope Francis’ personal involvement in it.
The bishop previously served as executive undersecretary of the Argentine bishops’ conference, where he worked closely with then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who led the conference from 2005-2011. Pope Francis named him Bishop of Oran as one of his first episcopal appointments after his election in 2013.
After Zanchetta resigned as diocesan bishop in 2017, at the age of 53, Pope Francis created a special position for him in the Roman curia, naming him assessor at the Administration for the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, which functions as the Vatican’s sovereign wealth manager and government reserve bank. Zanchetta was also reported to be living at the Domus Sanctae Marta, the Vatican hotel and retreat house where Pope Francis also lives.
Although Zanchetta initially cited “health reasons” for his resignation from the Oran diocese, several senior diocesan clergy have stated publicly that they presented allegations of sexual abuse by Zanchetta to Rome in 2015, and again in 2017. The Vatican has claimed it only received complaints of sexual abuse against Zanchetta in late 2018 — after he had resigned.
Those complaints led to the charges of “aggravated continuous sexual abuse” of two adult seminarians for which Zanchetta was convicted in March of this year.
Despite the Vatican’s statement, a February 2019 report from The Tribune, a local newspaper, published documents apparently illustrating that a formal complaint had been made against Zanchetta by three of his diocesan vicars, as well as two other senior diocesan priests, and that Pope Francis had summoned the bishop to Rome to discuss the matter.
The Tribune also detailed other complaints made against Zanchetta, including direct accusations of harassment of seminarians made by the seminary rector. The complaints were submitted via the apostolic nunciature in Buenos Aires in May and June 2017, prior to Zanchetta’s resignation for “health reasons.”
When the Vatican first acknowledged allegations of 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 — to date, the conclusions of that investigation have not been announced.
Zanchetta returned to Vatican work in early 2020, despite ongoing criminal and canonical investigations into the allegations against him, before finally leaving his role at APSA in June 2021, and returning to Argentina to stand trial earlier this year.
In the course of that trial, the bishops’ 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 judges elected to proceed with the trial without them.
While the bishop pled not guilty and filed to appeal his conviction, victims and witnesses testified that in 2016, Bishop 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.
Zanchetta’s continued presence in the diocese, and the lack of information about the canonical process against him in the Vatican, have been the focus of considerable criticism from local Catholics since the bishop’s conviction.
In addition to concerns about Zanchetta’s presence, many local Catholics have also expressed fears of possible retaliation by Church authorities against the priests and seminarians who gave evidence against the bishop.
Last month, several Argentine media outlets reported that the same canon lawyer who had defended Zanchetta in his canonical trial had been sent to Oran by the Vatican to conduct an investigation into the clergy and seminarians who testified against him.
The judge of the provincial ecclesiastical tribunal confirmed the appointment of Prof. Javier Belda Iniesta as investigator and that he had been appointed by Pope Francis.
However, one of Zanchetta’s victims has spoken out against the appointment, and against the Church’s treatment of those who came forward against the bishop.
In an interview published by The Tribune earlier this month, a former seminarian, identified only as MC, told the newspaper that his and other seminarians’ complaints against Zanchetta remained effectively unanswered by Church authorities.
“Our canonical accusation never got the slightest reply, we don’t know anything, whether it is in progress, left in a drawer, just nothing. The only thing they say is ‘it’s under pontifical secret’,” he told the newspaper.
The former seminarian also blamed the Vatican, and Pope Francis personally, for “cronyism” in the treatment Zanchetta has received, and said that the investigation into witnesses against the bishop was an exercise in “looking for someone else to blame and [to] whitewash Zanchetta.”
“They have trouble acknowledging that a bishop has been tried and convicted and [they] want him to have it as easy as possible,” the former seminarian said.
Belda Iniesta has told local media that “there is nothing strange” about his appointment and stressed that his investigation was preliminary, intended only to establish if there is a minimal semblance of truth to some allegations, and his investigation was not necessarily related to Zanchetta’s case.