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What does the latest twist in the Zanchetta affair mean for the Church?

Bishop Zanchetta (Getty)

The case is complex, but it could have far-reaching implications

An Argentine prosecutor has requested international assistance in the capture of a senior Catholic prelate, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who is accused of criminal sexual misconduct with seminarians in his native Argentina, and whose last known address was in Vatican City.

Queries from the Catholic Herald to the Press Office of the Holy See, asking whether Vatican officials have knowledge of Bishop Zanchetta’s whereabouts, and whether the Holy See intends to cooperate with the Argentinian request, were unacknowledged by press time. 

The details and timeline of the Zanchetta case are complex, but the bones of the story are that Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta, with whom he had served at the bishops’ conference of Argentina for several years, to the diocese of Orán in 2013. Francis had received complaints about Zanchetta, backed by documentary evidence including pornographic images involving “young people” and compromising photographs of Zanchetta himself, as early as 2015. In the face of that evidence, Francis summoned Zanchetta and asked for an account. Zanchetta said his phone had been hacked, and that the rumours regarding his behaviour came from quarters ill-disposed to the Pope.

Short version: Francis accepted Zanchetta’s story and sent him home to continue governing the Church in Orán. Two years and several complaints later, Francis told him to resign, then sent him for several a three months’ mental health evaluation, before appointing him to a specially created position in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA, roughly the Vatican’s central bank): the office of “assessor” to the APSA, which did not exist until Francis decided Zanchetta was too valuable to let go.

There is little we know about the Church-ordered evaluation of Zanchetta’s mental health, beyond assurances Pope Francis gave to Mexico’s Noticieros Televisa that Zanchetta presented no disqualifying psychological condition. The psychological evaluation Zanchetta underwent on the order of Argentine authorities, however, reportedly found that Zanchetta “presents a personality with psychopathic traits (manipulation indicators, superficial emotions, poor empathic capacity); he does not present psychosis, nor any other mental disorder that alters his relationship with reality.” 

El Tribuno de Salta further quotes the court-ordered evaluation as finding that Zanchetta “[f]orms bonds with persons of unequal station [se vincula a través de interrelaciones dispares], exerting power over the other, which could comprehend the behaviour displayed and the ability to discern socially reprehensible acts.”

“[Bishop Zanchetta] defended himself by saying that they had hacked him, and he defended himself well,” Francis told Televisa in May. “Economically he was messy, but he did not manage poorly the things he did manage. He was disorderly, but the vision [was] good,” Francis also said, explaining his December 2017 decision to put Zanchetta in APSA.

In January 2019, the Vatican announced that Zanchetta was suspended pending ecclesiastical investigation. Zanchetta, however, was on retreat with Pope Francis and other senior curial officials in March. Zanchetta was arraigned in an Argentine criminal court on charges of aggravated sexual abuse against at least two alleged victims — adults and former seminarians — over the summer, but was allowed to leave the country and return to the Vatican, having produced a letter from the sostituto of the Secretariat of State saying he was needed in Rome for his daily duties.

In September of this year, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, confirmed for the Catholic Herald “that the situation concerning Zanchetta’s working activity has not changed since 4th January”, when the Holy See publicly confirmed Zanchetta’s suspension, pending investigation. In that January 4 statement, however, the press office said that Bishop Zanchetta would “abstain from work” during the investigation. 

Now, Zanchetta is not answering phone calls or responding to emails from Argentine judicial officials. That, in a nutshell, is pretty much where we are, and how we got here, but the analytical question is: how bad is this?

There may well be an element of grandstanding in the Argentine prosecutor’s decision to make the international capture request while Pope Francis is away in Asia. But even if it is so, that does not mean the prosecutor is merely grandstanding. The prosecution has a case it is ready to bring to trial, but can’t because the accused left the country with a puzzling note from a high-ranking Vatican official and now won’t respond to calls or emails sent to the Vatican addresses he gave the court.

There is no short answer to the question: “How bad is this?” Ultimately, any answer will require consideration of critical context that is global in scope, protracted over more than seven decades, and ultimately reaches — directly or indirectly — every member of the hierarchy. For the moment, there is one cleric who matters more than any other, indeed all the others taken together: Pope Francis, who did not create the crisis that has engulfed the Church, but owns the Zanchetta affair from start to finish.