I gave a (virtual) talk last month about the peculiar journalistic niche that goes under the rubric of Vaticanology. While I didn’t quite tell any tales out of school, I did give my listeners what I have good reason to believe was received as a lively portrait of life on the Vatican beat.
One thing surprised me.
I mentioned the Vatican’s struggles with transparency, and had a question from the floor about whether I thought Pope Francis was moving – or trying to move – the Vatican and the Church in the direction of more “proactive” forthrightness. Now normally, I’d offer what I hope would be a sufficiently witty deflection and conclude with a suggestive nod to the minor successes there have been in these regards, notwithstanding the well-publicised and frequently disastrous failures.
This time, however, I couldn’t call to mind even a minor success.
I was also still wrapping my head around the news that Francis had restored Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta – currently facing criminal trial in his native Argentina on charges of “aggravated continuous sexual abuse” allegedly committed against his own seminarians – to his job. Zanchetta has returned to his tailor-made role inside the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which is roughly and readily the Vatican’s central bank, even though Zanchetta is also accused of financial irregularity during his time as bishop of Orán (the see to which Francis appointed Zanchetta in 2013). He denies all charges.
If you read Spanish, and want to be up to speed on l’Affaire Zanchetta, check the pages of El Tribuno de Salta, the Argentinian paper that has been on the story from the start. In the English-speaking world, the Associated Press and Crux have done crackerjack reporting all the way through. The Herald has made a few minor contributions here and there, as well. The point is: the story is in the news and isn’t going away.
I didn’t directly answer the question, though, but only rehearsed the barest bones of the Zanchetta Affair. If one were to attempt a direct answer, one would almost have to account for Pope Francis’s apparent willingness to trust the word of an accused bishop, and his willingness to put the bishop in a tailor-made position of trust and responsibility – either before he had adequate command of pertinent facts, or despite what he knew, or both.
Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta to the diocese of Orán in 2013, and began receiving complaints about him backed by documentary evidence (including pornographic images involving “young people” and compromising images of Zanchetta himself) as early as 2015. Francis summoned Zanchetta and demanded an account. Zanchetta said his phone had been hacked, and claimed that the rumours regarding his behaviour came from quarters ill-disposed to the Pope.
Francis sent Zanchetta home to continue in the governance of Orán diocese, until – after two years and several further complaints – Francis had Zanchetta resign and sent him to have his head shrunk, before appointing him to the APSA position, which didn’t exist until Zanchetta needed one.
In January 2019, the more lurid details of the story began to come before the worldwide public.
The press office of the Holy See issued a statement: “At the time of his resignation [in 2017],” the statement said, “there had been accusations of authoritarianism against [Zanchetta], but there had been no accusation of sexual abuse against him.” That is a position only very careful parsing will save from a charge of mendacity.
Eventually Francis did order an ecclesiastical investigation. There’s no word on where that stands, though. So, in answer to the query, one could attempt an account of all that. Or, one could let Pope Francis answer in his own words, which he spoke in an interview with Noticieros Televisa that aired in late May of last year: “[T]he preliminary investigation came to me,” Pope Francis said. “I read it, and I saw that it was necessary to make a judgment. Then I passed it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, [and] they are making the judgment.
“So, why do I tell you all this?” Francis continued. “To tell impatient people – who say, “He did not do anything,” that the Pope does not have to go around publishing every day what he is doing, but from the very first moment of this case I’ve not [once] stood staring.”