Published March 10, 2022
The trial and sentencing of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta took all of two weeks. An Argentine court found Zanchetta guilty of sexually abusing two seminarians in his former diocese. He was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
The criminal conviction of a Catholic bishop for abusing his own seminarians would be a major story in its own right, but the case of Bishop Zanchetta has garnered global attention on account of Zanchetta’s close association with Pope Francis. The case raises several concerns about reforms Pope Francis has adopted, especially as regards episcopal accountability, and the pope’s personal treatment of those reforms.
Zanchetta worked closely with then-Cardinal Bergoglio when the latter was head of the Argentine bishops’ conference. Bergoglio was Zanchetta’s confessor, and saw the younger priest as a “spiritual son.” Shortly after being elected pope in 2013, Zanchetta was among his first episcopal appointments, when Francis named him bishop of the northern Argentine diocese of Oran.
Zanchetta’s appointment came, as it happens, less than a week before Pope Francis’ famous quip: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” I mention this not to insinuate that Pope Francis knew of Zanchetta’s proclivities, still less that he was thinking of Zanchetta when he made the remark. Certainly not. But the question of how the pope is to judge such a person – even a “spiritual son” – turns out to matter a great deal.
It was not long after his appointment as bishop that complaints about Zanchetta started filtering out of Oran. In 2015, he was summoned to Rome by Pope Francis to explain reports that pornography – including lewd images of young men and of himself – had been found on Zanchetta’s phone. Zanchetta’s defense, it seems, was that the images were fake, his phone had been hacked, and that the whole affair had been orchestrated in order to embarrass, by close association, the Holy Father himself.
Pope Francis believed his friend and sent him back to Oran.
But the reports kept coming. In 2017, diocesan officials in Oran reported sexual harassment of seminarians and financial mismanagement, through the nunciature in Argentina. In July of 2017, Francis again summoned Zanchetta to Rome. As he would later explain, “Before I asked for [Zanchetta’s] resignation, there was an accusation, and I immediately made him come over with the person who accused him and explain it.” Shortly after that meeting with the pope, Zanchetta did submit his resignation – citing “health reasons” – which Pope Francis accepted. Zanchetta, meanwhile, went to Spain for treatment.
By December of 2017, Zanchetta had left Spain for Rome where he took up residence in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where Francis himself lives. Despite the reports of financial mismanagement in Oran, and even earlier concerns from his home diocese of Quilmes, Francis created a new sinecure for Zanchetta at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which oversees financial holdings for the Holy See.
Whether Zanchetta had any real responsibility at APSA is unclear. It’s plausible that the Holy Father simply wanted to keep a close eye on his troubled protégé. But the events of 2018 – and the tidal wave of abuse-related news that came with it – made the already awkward arrangement increasingly untenable.
In January 2019, the Vatican announced that it was beginning a preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against Zanchetta. Curiously, the Vatican press office insisted that it was only in 2018 that allegations of abuse had emerged, despite the fact that the pope had personally summoned Zanchetta to Rome in 2015 and 2017 to answer for reports of misconduct, including sexual misconduct.
The most straightforward, and perhaps most charitable, explanation of this discrepancy is that the reports against Zanchetta prior to 2018 were of conduct that did not meet the existing canonical definition of sexual abuse. Such legal distinctions are important. But an over-reliance on such distinctions also kept a red hat on Theodore McCarrick’s head for years, even after abuse settlements had been paid out in multiple dioceses on account of his predations.
Zanchetta was suspended from his position at APSA in 2019 while the Vatican conducted its investigation. There have been no updates from the Vatican on the status of that investigation. In July of 2019, Argentine authorities filed sexual abuse charges against Zanchetta while continuing to investigate his financial mismanagement. But by June of 2020, Zanchetta was back at his job at APSA. He remained in that role until last summer. He subsequently returned to Argentina to face trial, which the pandemic had delayed until just this year.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has shown himself to be allergic to “legalism” in all its forms, preferring a personal and “pastoral” style of governance. Legalism, for him, is a Bad Thing. But even the appearance of the arbitrary exercise of authority, however well-intentioned, can be a very ugly thing, too.
The Zanchetta case is not the first time in which the selective and deferential treatment of well-connected prelates has aggravated an already scandalous pastoral situation. There was Bishop Juan Barros in Chile, whom Francis apologized for defending; there was Theodore McCarrick, especially during the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI; before that there was, perhaps most notoriously, Fr. Marcial Maciel. The list goes on. In each of these cases, it was not legalism, but its opposite that caused damage to the Church.
If the legal reforms Pope Francis has put in place to ensure episcopal accountability are to be effective, they must be treated as laws, not as pastoral guidelines to be enforced selectively. This is especially true for Vos estis lux mundi. Perhaps more than anything, and as always, greater transparency is needed.
Legal reforms need to work, but they also need to be seen to be working. And they need to be seen to be applied impartially. Without greater transparency, neither is possible. Transparency is pastoral.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.