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Zanchetta lawyer turned Vatican investigator was fired for resumé fraud

Fr. Javier Belda Iniesta. Credit: UCAM.

The priest who served as advocate for convicted sex offender Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta, and who is now leading a Vatican investigation into the bishop’s accusers, was sacked last year from his position at a Spanish university for reportedly falsifying his resumé.

Fr. Javier Belda Iniesta was dismissed as Dean of the Faculty of Human, Canonical and Religious Sciences at the Catholic University of Murcia, Spain, in May 2021, after he was unable to substantiate several academic qualifications listed on his resumé, raising new questions about his June appointment by Pope Francis to lead an investigation in the Argentine Diocese of Oran.

Pope Francis has faced repeated criticism from Catholics in Argentina over his handling of the situation in the Oran diocese. The pontiff appointed Zanchetta Bishop of Oran in 2013 in one of his first episcopal appointments as pope. The two men are known to be close collaborators, having previously worked together at the Argentine bishops’ conference.

Zanchetta resigned as bishop in 2017 for “health reasons.” Subsequent reporting established that since 2015 he had been accused by senior clergy in his diocese of sexual misconduct, abuse of seminarians, and financial impropriety.

Zanchetta’s own clergy have stated that they brought accusations against the bishop to Rome in 2015 and again in 2017. But the Vatican has denied knowledge of the charges until 2018. After Zanchetta’s resignation as diocesan bishop, Pope Francis created a special curial post for him in Rome, allowing the bishop to live and work in the Vatican even after the allegations had been made public and both civil and canonical investigations into the bishop were underway.

Local Catholics, including former seminarians who were abused by Bishop Zanchetta, have appealed to a local metropolitan archbishop in Argentina, alleging that Zanchetta is still receiving favorable treatment from church authorities.

Catholics in Oran have also alleged that Belda - who was Zanchetta’s canonical defense lawyer - is now leading a Vatican-authorized campaign of retaliation against those who gave evidence against the bishop during his canonical trial.

According to multiple Spanish news outlets, Belda was dismissed as dean last year, after he could not provide proof of several degrees listed on his resumé and on the university website, in response to requests from a verification agency responsible for checking academic qualifications.

Belda reportedly could not substantiate his claims to degrees in several disciplines, including philosophy, civil law, theology, and Hispanic philology. He was able to produce degrees in canon law, however.

The Faculty of Human, Canonical and Religious Sciences at the Catholic University of Murcia is an affiliated external center of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.

In June, a judge of the provincial ecclesiastical tribunal in Argentina confirmed that Belda had been appointed by Pope Francis as an investigator into a preliminary canonical investigation involving clerics who testified against Zanchetta.

But the priest’s 2021 firing raises new questions about his suitability to lead the investigation in Oran; the Code of Canon Law states that those leading preliminary investigations function as “auditors” in canon law, and are required to be “outstanding for their good character, prudence, and doctrine.”

Belda is reportedly questioning senior clerics of the diocese who gave evidence against his former client in connection with allegations of financial and sexual misconduct.

Even before Belda’s dismissal for apparently falsifying his resumé was widely known, local Catholics had repeatedly expressed concern about the canonist’s appointment to investigate his former client’s accusers.

In an interview published by local newspaper The Tribune earlier this month, a former seminarian and victim of Zanchetta accused the Vatican, and Pope Francis personally, of “cronyism” in their treatment of Zanchetta following his conviction by an Argentine court in March for the aggrevated sexual abuse of seminarians.

The former seminarian said that Belda’s 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 has told local media that “there is nothing strange” about his appointment as investigator, and stressed that his investigation is intended only to establish if there is a minimal semblance of truth to some allegations against his former client’s accusers.

Belda told local media his investigation was not necessarily related to Zanchetta’s case, but he also suggested that his knowledge of the local situation through the Zanchetta case was a likely factor in his appointment.

The prudence of his appointment by the Vatican has been repeatedly questioned, with local Catholics complaining that it is part of a pattern of special treatment being given to Zanchetta and continued hostility towards his accusers.

While there is no legal prohibition against a defense advocate being appointed to serve as a prosecutorial investigator in a later case, canon law requires that all those involved in the legal process have unimpaired reputations. The timing of his dismissal for professional dishonesty last year, from a role affiliated with a Vatican-affiliated institution, now raises new questions about the decision to appoint Belda to a highly sensitive position just months later.

Following his conviction, Zanchetta was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. But following a petition by the bishop’s lawyers, he was released in July to serve the balance of his sentence under house arrest on medical grounds.

In the course of that trial, the bishops’ attorneys subpoenaed the Vatican’s files pertaining to a canonical investigation and trial of Zanchetta at the Dicastery 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.

The results of Zanchetta’s canonical trial have not been made publicly available.

While the bishop pled not guilty and filed to appeal his conviction by the Argentine court, 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.

Since his release from prison, Zanchetta has continued living in his former diocese at a monastery which serves as the retirement home for local priests.

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