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Bishop Zanchetta and pastoral myopia

Pope Francis adjusts his glasses as he offers Mass during a two-day pastoral visit in Turin, Italy, June 21, 2015. Credit: REUTERS/Giorgio Perottino

When Pope Francis met with Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta in 2015, it was to discuss allegations that the bishop had pornography on his phone: sexually explicit images of young men, and of himself.

Zanchetta told the pope that the pictures were fake; his phone had been hacked, apparently by people who wanted to damage the reputation of the pope. Francis believed him, and sent Zanchetta back home to Oran, his diocese in Argentina.

In 2016, priest officials of Oran reported that Zanchetta mismanaged funds and sexually harassed seminarians — apparently sitting in the beds of seminarians while they were sleeping, giving them lingering hugs and unwanted massages during the day, plying them with alcohol, and requiring that first-year students meet for introductory classes in the bishop’s house.

The bishop was again summoned to Rome, and in 2017 resigned from his diocesan position, citing “health reasons.”

A few months later, having sent him to Spain for psychiatric evaluation, Pope Francis gave Zanchetta a sinecure in the Vatican, an assessor position at the Vatican sovereign wealth manager, APSA. Zanchetta was working there when media outlets in Argentina began to report sexual assault allegations against him.

In early 2019, the Vatican said it had received abuse allegations against Zanchetta a few months earlier, and the CDF had started a canonical investigation. That announcement came after Argentine newspapers reported that Zanchetta harassed and abused seminarians.

Zanchetta, with full priestly faculties, went on a leave of absence from his job, though he attended a Vatican staff retreat that year. He returned to his job in a matter of months, despite criminal charges in Argentina. He lived in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the hotel where Pope Francis resides.

There has been no clarity about the canonical investigation, or an alleged canonical penal process to which Pope Francis has alluded but never formally announced.

And then last week, Zanchetta was convicted in an Argentine court of aggravated sexual assualt, and sentenced to more than four years of prison.

Many Catholics have questions. The most prominent question is “Why?”

When the bishop had porn and nude selfies on his phone, why did Pope Francis believe that story about hackers? Why would Francis believe Zanchetta’s claim that the whole situation was really about antipapal agendas?

Why did the pope give Zanchetta a Vatican job after allegations of grave misbehavior with seminarians? Why did Zanchetta keep his faculties even after the Vatican started investigating him? Why did he get to go back to work? Why don’t we know what the CDF discovered, or what they concluded?

Why is the Vatican’s official position, still, that it never received abuse allegations against Zanchetta until 2018?

Why, most often, did Pope Francis protect and promote a bishop accused of serious sexual misconduct?

Just two years before Francis was elected pope, he finished a six-year stint as president of the Argentine bishops’ conference. He worked often in that role with the conference’s executive undersecretary, the second-ranking staff position at the conference — Fr. Gustavo Zanchetta.

It is obvious that Francis and Zanchetta developed a friendship; priests in Argentine say that Zanchetta became a spiritual son to the future pope. And Francis appointed Zanchetta a bishop just months after he’d been elected to the papacy.

In the wake of Zanchetta’s conviction, it seems near certain that relationship was marked by a vexing problem for the reform of clerical sexual misconduct in the life of the Church: pastoral myopia.

Diocesan bishops are urged by the Second Vatican Council to “embrace priests with a special love, since the latter to the best of their ability assume the bishops’ anxieties and carry them on day-by-day so zealously. They should regard the priests as sons and friends and be ready to listen to them.”

The bishop should “pursue priests who are involved in any danger or who have failed in certain respects” with “active mercy,” Christus dominus recommends.

But a bishop is also commanded to be a judge, and to serve justice for sake of the common good — for the whole of the People of God.

Even without malice, it can be hard to balance those roles. It can be difficult to live as both merciful father and just judge. It requires a certain kind of discipline, not easily developed.

And even without nefarious intent, bishops who encounter priestly failure, even grave and criminal failure, can too easily concern themselves with their sense of what’s good for the “son” in front of them - the priest - rather than with victims whom they have never met, or who exist only in the abstract.

Francis, presumably, intended to be merciful to Zanchetta - a son - when he brought him to Rome and gave him a job. The problem, victims say, is that the pope didn’t see beyond Zanchetta — what his new job meant for them, and for the Church.

Compounding pastoral myopia is a common tendency, or a temptation at least, to medicalize sin, and even crime, when it can no longer be ignored or explained away.

The therapeutic approach emphasizes that an offender is sick rather than vicious, and reinforces the perception that authority figures are responsible for rehabilitation, not discipline.

When it becomes a cultural norm in a community of people in healing ministries - clerics - the approach can powerfully influence the actions of bishops.

In Zanchetta’s case, it is noteworthy that despite years of complaints against him, Pope Francis accepted the bishop’s resignation for “health reasons,” not moral depravity, and then sent him for a psychiatric evaluation in Spain.

Later, the pope said he gave Zanchetta the Vatican job after psychiatrists said he had an aptitude for administrative work. It was not until media coverage and public pressure mounted that the Vatican’s approach seemed to shift from therapeutic to disciplinary. By then, the scandal of the therapeutic approach was, for many observers, already manifest.

Of course, pastoral myopia does not exist in all cases.  And plenty of U.S. clerics will argue that since 2002, the pendulum has swung mostly the other way: that bishops have not even given accused priests due process, let alone too many chances. Their point is well-taken.

But Zanchetta is not the only example of pastoral myopia in serious situations, especially among “sick,” favored, or much beloved sons.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report recounts, time after time, bishops who seemed to want to help their priests, without seeing the needs of their victims. That myopia often saw them send offending priests away to “get help,” and then give them more chances in ministry.

The situation of Marcel Maciel, the notorious abuser who founded the Legion of Christ, is another example. By the time allegations against Maciel flooded his desk, Pope St. John Paul II and Maciel had traveled together, visited often, and formed what John Paul saw as a friendship. While other factors contributed to Maciel’s decades of impunity, the influence of that personal and pastoral relationship on John Paul’s reticence to address allegations against Maciel can’t be discounted.

And in Knoxville, Tennessee, Bishop Rick Stika insists he was right to tamp down a rape investigation into a seminarian with whom he had a close pastoral relationship and who lived in his house. Stika “knew in [his] heart” that the young man “was innocent,” he told The Pillar.

The bishop has insisted that arguments to the contrary are “ruining a vocation.”

That kind of viewpoint, priests in Knoxville tell The Pillar, impedes justice.

A cover-up doesn’t always require a conniving sense of institutional self-protection. It doesn’t prove some goal of personal advancement, or some act of blackmail, or the existence of a “lavender mafia.”

Sometimes a cover-up requires only the blinding and deeply disordered sense of loyalty that leads to bad choices — the good intention of fatherly leadership, but without regard for a broader sense of justice.

Victims’ advocates say that can be addressed when bishops know the victims of clerical sexual abuse, and have heard their experiences — when they understand the damage that’s wrought when a spiritual leader abuses power or influence to coerce, manipulate, or force themselves, often in the name of God.

Familiarity with that pain, advocates say, helps bishops overcome the tendency to see an offending cleric as primarily a wounded and struggling soul — and thus to aim at his healing, rather than at protecting the community.

Of course, some victims and their families find that the prospect of litigation — even as a faint specter looming in the background — makes bishops afraid to have honest and candid conversations with them. But until they do, advocates say, most bishops will be tempted naturally towards trying to help wayward clerics, but actually doing offense to the good of justice, and to the needs of victims.

Also important, according to victims’ advocates, are systems and processes which prevent the influence of disordered “pastoral mercy” or inequitable “charity” from seeing justice accomplished in the Church.

In fact, Pope Francis himself has said as much, writing last year that observing just processes “cannot be separated in any way from the munus pastorale entrusted to [bishops], and is to be carried out as a concrete and essential requirement of charity, not only towards the Church, the Christian community and potential injured parties, but also towards those who commit crimes and are themselves in need of the Church’s mercy and correction.”

Advocates have questioned whether the “metropolitan model” of Vos estis lux mundi, in which investigations into bishops are primarily bishop-driven, sufficiently overcomes the pastoral myopia of familiar friendship — the inevitable conflicts-of-interest that emerge between clerics with multi-tiered relationships. That issue will be debated in the months to come, as Vos estis comes up for renewal.

But systems are only as good as the people who make use of them.

While Vos estis is debated, the enduring question of the Zanchetta affair may be whether bishops, and the Holy See, have learned that blind spots, even when borne of good intentions, can stand in the way of justice — and that acknowledging and addressing them - by recusal, delegation, or transparency - is a necessary step in the Church’s reform and renewal.

Some bishops have obviously learned that lesson, but others have not.

Of course, in Zanchetta’s case there will be other lingering questions as well — among them that of justice for his victims, the former seminarians who presumably had their vocations destroyed by their bishop’s sexual predations. While Zanchetta will go to prison, they have not yet had their experience acknowledged by the Church.

There is also the matter of Zanchetta’s former clergy - the priests he led -  who for years complained about their bishop’s actions, and saw their warnings dismissed.

Fr. Juan Jose Manzano, for example, says he first complained to Rome in 2015, but to date the Vatican insists it did not hear abuse accusations against Zanchetta until 2018.

If that claim is technically true, it is only because patterns of obviously inappropriate behavior did not trigger an investigation into whether abuse, properly speaking, actually occurred.

Clerics will no doubt wonder to whom do priests like Manzano should turn for some acknowledgment, if not apology, for their efforts.

And Catholics discouraged by the Zanchetta affair will likely wonder whether the phenomena of pastoral myopia — perhaps a symptom of hierarchical institutions, but not an incurable one — will be addressed.

If it won’t, the path to lasting reform might appear rather blurry.

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