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Pope Francis' 'Zanchetta problem'

The criminal conviction of Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta for the sexual abuse of seminarians has sent shock waves through the Argentine Catholic Church, and the Vatican.

The conviction also raises questions about the credibility of Pope Francis, a close friend of Zanchetta, on handling abuse allegations. It could well cast a shadow over the pope’s signature reform effort, Vos estis lux mundi, promulgated in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal.

Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta speaks with a reporter in 2013. ZonaFrancaTelevision/YouTube

Bishop Zanchetta was sentenced to four years and six months in prison on Friday after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting two former adult seminarians. If he serves his full prison term, the bishop will have spent longer in jail than he did as Bishop of Oran.

While the court focused on his brief tenure leading the diocese, scrutiny is now likely to fall on the years Zanchetta spent in Rome, under the patronage of Pope Francis, who promoted Zanchetta to bishop in one of his first acts as pope, and who created a job for Zanchetta in the Vatican after the bishop resigned from his diocese under a cloud of suspicion.

Zanchetta was appointed Bishop of Oran by Francis in 2013, one of the new pope’s first episcopal appointments. But within two years local clergy were complaining to the Vatican about the bishops’s behavior towards seminarians.

Yet, despite mounting complaints from local priests, Francis sided with the bishop. According to the former vicar general of the diocese, even after obscene photographs of the bishop and of young men were discovered on Zanchetta’s phone, the pope accepted his explanation that he’d been hacked by “conservatives” and “anti-Francis” forces in the diocese.

Even after the pope finally accepted Zanchetta’s resignation in 2017 — ostensibly for health reasons — the Vatican still insisted that it had not received any firm complaints against the bishop until the following year, despite considerable reporting appearing to show the contrary.

Francis went further than just accepting Zanchetta’s resignation for “health reasons,” though, creating a sinecure position for him in the curia, and giving him a home in the Vatican hotel where the pope himself lives.

Perhaps most awkwardly for the pope, he kept Zanchetta in a Vatican job and residence during exactly the period when the Church was reeling from the scandal of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and as the pope was convening a global summit of the world’s bishops to address the question of episcopal accountability.

That summit produced the landmark legislation Vos estis lux mundi, intended to bring new levels of accountability to bishops around the world, and to ensure Church leaders who failed to take serious allegations of abuse were punished for their negligence.

While Francis did order a preliminary investigation into Zanchetta, and announced that there would be a canonical trial at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2019, the results of neither process have been made public, or shared with the Argentine authorities, despite papal policies explicitly aimed at transparency in such cases. In fact, it’s not even clear what canonical charges Zanchetta is actually facing, or has faced.

Francis has a decidedly mixed record on addressing serious clerical sexual misconduct, abuse, and cover-up.

The pope has promulgated several policies aimed at preventing and prosecuting cover ups or abuse itself. But he has also shown himself reluctant to act on allegations against friends, as in the case of Zanchetta, or when he believes the allegations could be politically motivated, as was the case in a 2018 fracas over a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse, whom Francis vigorously defended, before eventually apologizing to victims and accepting the bishop’s resignation from his diocesan post.

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And papal policies on abuse, especially centerpiece Vos estis lux mundi, have seen mixed results.

While several bishops are known to be under investigation in the United States, the Vatican has been reluctant, or unwilling, to acknowledge many of those investigations, despite promises of transparency. And the only U.S. bishop to be sanctioned under Vos estis wasn’t formally sanctioned at all — Bishop Michael Hoeppner, who pressured a victim to recant his abuse claim, among other things, was permitted to resign from his diocesan post in 2021, with no formal acknowledgment from the Holy See of wrongdoing, or any canonical trial.

Another element of the pope’s reform agenda, episcopal trial procedures published in 2016’s Come una madre amorevole, do not seem to have produced an actual episcopal trial. They are widely perceived to be a dead letter.

With Zanchetta’s criminal conviction — which came despite the Vatican’s decision not to hand over any of its own files to prosecutors — some Catholics will again ask whether they can trust in the pope’s reform efforts, while he invited an accused, and eventually convicted, bishop to work in the Vatican — and allowed him to stay in post even after ordering a canonical investigation and canonical trial of his misconduct.

The pope’s assignment of Zanchetta to a management position at APSA will also raise questions about papal commitment to financial reforms, given that Zanchetta was frequently accused of financial improprieties in his diocese, and, at the very least, possessed something less than an unimpeached reputation on the financial front when he was given the job.

On balance, Francis has a sterling reputation for financial reform; his assignment of Zanchetta may well be taken as an exception, but one that conveys the blind spots of personal loyalty in clerical culture, even among high-ranking clerics. As the Church faces other financial scandals, at both local and global levels, that lesson may be well worth remembering.

Vos estis lux mundi was approved for an experimental period, which is due to expire later this year — at that point the pope will be tasked with either confirming it indefinitely, or making modifications. In light of Zanchetta, advocacy groups will likely call for reforms addressing the inevitable conflicts of interest that come with bishops - or popes - investigating the bishops they have known for a long time, and which address the policy’s relative silence on what a bishop should be permitted to do, or not do, when he is accused of misconduct.

Zanchetta himself has not been laicized, or even publicly sanctioned by the Vatican, for acts which have now earned him four years of hard time. If Francis intends to convey that he has learned something from the Zanchetta ordeal, addressing the bishop’s canonical status will probably be seen as an important first step.

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