Another letter caused something of a stir last week. It came from a high-ranking official in the Secretariat of State and was presented to the court in Argentina overseeing the current phase of the trial, on criminal sexual misconduct charges, of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who has reportedly been allowed once again to travel to Rome.
Crux reported last week that the judge overseeing the preliminary phase of the proceedings described the letter as coming from the Vatican, and claiming that Bishop Zanchetta is needed in Rome “to continue with his daily work”. Just exactly what work that might be remains a mystery since Pope Francis suspended the bishop from the job he had created for him in the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which oversees the Holy See’s real estate and major financial holdings.
Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, told The Catholic Herald: “I can confirm that the situation concerning [Bishop] 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, the press office said that Bishop Zanchetta would “abstain from work” during the investigation and that “the case will be referred to the special commission for the bishops”, in the event that elements to proceed against him were discovered.
Church watchers will recall that Pope Francis allowed Zanchetta to resign from the Argentine Diocese of Óran in August 2017. The press office gave no reason for Zanchetta’s resignation at the time, but Zanchetta himself separately cited ill health. In December of that same year Pope Francis named Zanchetta to the APSA position.
The January 4 statement came in response to news reports about the investigation into Bishop Zanchetta’s conduct. The statement claimed that Zanchetta had resigned because he could not govern the clergy in his diocese. It also stated that the sexual misconduct accusations were not lodged until autumn 2018.
“At the time of his resignation [in 2017],” the press office’s interim director Alessandro Gisotti had said, “there had been accusations of authoritarianism against [Zanchetta], but there had been no accusation of sexual abuse against him.” Gisotti had been in the job only three days, and had come into the role quite unexpectedly, after the Pope asked him to step in following the surprise resignations of Greg Burke and Paloma García Ovejero.
On a very close reading, the press office statement may have been technically accurate. Reports based on documentary evidence and interviews with principal actors, however, suggested that Pope Francis had seen evidence of Zanchetta’s ambiguous behaviour – including photographic evidence and complaints he sexually harassed seminarians – as early as 2015.
In May this year, Pope Francis addressed the matter directly, telling Mexico’s Noticieros Televisa: “[Bishop Zanchetta] defended himself by saying that they had hacked him, and he defended himself well. Then, in the face of evidence and a good defence, doubt remains.”
Zanchetta’s deployment of a modified version of the so-called Shaggy defence (named after the song It Wasn’t Me) apparently met with a temporarily sympathetic Pope Francis. In short, he believed the word of a prelate he knew from his days in Argentina over the complaints of the prelate’s underlings and visual evidence.
Nor is the letter from the Secretariat of State the first ambiguity to raise questions regarding Zanchetta’s status. In March, the Catholic Herald discovered and reported that Zanchetta was taking part in the Lenten retreat with Pope Francis, along with other senior members of the Curia.
The letter mentioned by the judge in Argentina bore the signature of Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, the Substitute (Sostituto in Italian) for General Affairs in the Secretariat of State, a position sometimes described, not entirely accurately, as the Vatican’s “number three” spot.
The Sostituto has historically been a “doer”, who coordinates the work of the Secretariat, is responsible for personnel issues within the Roman Curia more generally and sometimes acts as a fixer. He is also a “bridge figure” spanning the divide between the Vatican Secretary of State and the Pope. Historically, the Sostituto has been one of three men who can walk in on the Pope, unannounced.
The news of the letter was only one remarkable development in one protracted scandal in one week that saw other significant developments in various protracted scandals, all of which land on Pope Francis’s doorstep.
Also last week, Pope Francis moved Archbishop Ivo Scapolo, the Apostolic Nuncio to Chile, to Portugal – a prestigious posting – notwithstanding the unanswered questions regarding Scapolo’s role in the Bishop Juan Barros scandal and the cover-up of abuse in the Chilean Church. That crisis provoked the resignation of the entire Chilean hierarchy and has seen several high-ranking churchmen face criminal probes.