What the Bishop Zanchetta case tells us about Church leadership

It is possible to come to the very edge of telling of falsehood, while still telling the technical truth. Church leaders have gotten very good at this.

Argentine Catholics pray outside St. Cajetan Church in in Buenos Aires in this 2017 file photo. (CNS photo/Marcos Brindicci, Reuters)

The Vatican has doubled down on its insistence it never received any accusation of sexual abuse against Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta until well after Zanchetta, the former bishop of Orán, Argentina, was ensconced in a position Pope Francis created for him inside a powerful and scandal-troubled dicastery of the Roman Curia.

The new statement came in the wake of claims from the former vicar general of Orán, Father Juan José Manzano, who told the Associated Press the Vatican had evidence of Bishop Zanchetta’s moral turpitude in 2015—two years before Zanchetta resigned as bishop of Orán, citing illness, only to reappear a few months later in the Vatican post Pope Francis had made for him.

Manzano’s claims are significant, because they would mean the Vatican received evidence of Bishop Zanchetta’s questionable moral conduct before Francis named Zanchetta “assessor” to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA), which manages the Vatican’s considerable real-estate and other financial and liquid assets.

Father Manzano’s claims appear to fly in the face of declarations the Vatican made when word got out in early January that Zanchetta was under investigation after complaints of misrule, bad blood, and sexual impropriety with seminarians. The director of the Holy See Press Office, Alessandro Gisotti, issued a statement January 4 saying the Vatican did not receive any “accusation” of sexual abuse until sometime in the fall of 2018.

In an AP exclusive published on Monday, Father Manzano says the evidence he sent to the Vatican in 2015 contained “a ‘digital support’ with selfie photos of the previous bishop in obscene or out of place behavior that seemed inappropriate and dangerous.”

Father Manzano also says that in 2017, “when the situation was much more serious, not just because there had been a question about sexual abuses, but because the diocese was increasingly heading into the abyss,” he and other diocesan officials complained a second time, to the apostolic nuncio in Buenos Aires.

Further complicating the optics of the matter is that Pope Francis’ acquaintance with Bishop Zanchetta is an old one. They knew each other when Francis was archbishop of Buenos Aires and Zanchetta was a priest of the Diocese of Quilmes and executive undersecretary to the Argentinian bishops’ conference, of which then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was president from 2005-2011.

Father Manzano told the AP Bishop Zanchetta gave Pope Francis a line: “[T]he Holy Father summoned Zanchetta and he justified himself saying that his cellphone had been hacked, and that there were people who were out to damage the image of the pope.”

Unless Father Manzano is cutting his story from whole cloth, there are three basic possibilities here (with multiple permutations): the images allegedly sent to the Vatican in 2015 were of Bishop Zanchetta and were compromising, or they were not of Zanchetta, or they were not compromising. Then there are the alleged 2017 reports. They may not have been formal legal complaints, but a halfway competent governor gets to the bottom of that story before he makes Zanchetta dog-catcher, let alone an official in an important Vatican dicastery. Instead, Pope Francis used the power of his office to make sure Zanchetta had a place to land, apparently either before he assured himself of all the facts or in spite of what he knew.

Following the publication of Father Manzano’s claims, Gisotti issued a second statement, forcefully reiterating the Holy See’s position. “In reference to the articles published recently by several news sources, as well as to some misleading reconstructions,” Gisotti told journalists, “I resolutely repeat what was stated this past 4 January.” Gisotti went on to say, “In addition, I emphasize that the case is being studied and when this process is over, information will be forthcoming regarding the results.”

The Vatican Press Office did not address Father Manzano’s claims directly, nor did it offer anything in the way of clarification. A close reading of the original January 4 statement could show that it contains no falsehood; evidence of the sort Father Manzano says he delivered and the manner in which he says he delivered it may not be considered a formal complaint or “accusation” in the strict sense of the term.

One thing, however, is certain.

We have learned over the course of the past year that high Churchmen are practiced in the art of telling it crooked without actually speaking a technically false word.

We learned the lesson from the former archbishop of Washington, DC, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, who changed his story several times with regard to what he knew about the habits of his disgraced predecessor, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and then claimed he forgot about the report he received from one of McCarrick’s adult victims.

We learned the lesson from all the prelates who were “shocked” and “saddened” when word got out that “Uncle Ted” McCarrick is a pervert and a criminal.

We learned the lesson from Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, who tried to make himself a hero by publishing “all” the names of credibly accused priests of his diocese, only to find himself pilloried for releasing an incomplete register and forced to expand the list. Malone continues to face scrutiny for mismanagement of abuse cases, but has so far refused to resign.

We learned the lesson when the former nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, took an iron-clad fact pattern and undermined his brief exposing three decades of curial rot by gilding the lily—“sanctions” was a stronger word than he needed, especially when “restrictions” would have sufficed—and by calling for Francis’ resignation. If he’d stuck to the facts, it would have been much harder for the coup d’eglise narrative to gain traction and almost impossible for Francis to ignore him. The way Viganò glossed his role in the Nienstedt business was also unfortunate; if he’d simply added a memorandum to the file, it would have fixed the discrepancy he outlined in his post factum discussion—but ordering (or even requesting) a letter be pulled from the file was never going to play in Peoria, however it might have done in Rome.

We learned the lesson from Pope Francis himself, when he claimed never to have signed a pardon for a cleric guilty of sexual abuse, even though he had reduced the sentences of several guilty priests, including one—Italian Mauro Inzoli—who was later convicted in Italian criminal court for abusing five victims aged 12-16. The Wall Street Journal reported late last year that an appellate panel Francis established has also significantly reduced trial court sentences and even restored men to the clerical state who had been penally laicized.

We learned the lesson from Pope Francis again, when he claimed never to have received evidence of Bishop Barros’ wrongdoing, even though he had a letter from abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz that told in harrowing detail how Barros watched his mentor, then-Father Fernando Karadima, work on the boys in his charge, only to turn a blind eye and later aid in covering up his mentor’s predations.

Pope Francis has yet to explain what happened to Cruz’s letter.

In his recent letter to the US bishops, Pope Francis wrote, “The Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them.” Pope Francis is right. “This has led to a growing sense of uncertainty, distrust, and vulnerability among the faithful.” Yes, it has. “As we know, the mentality that would cover things up, far from helping to resolve conflicts, enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationships that today we are called to heal and restore.” Yes, it has, and yes, you are.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 81 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, writer, and editor based in Rome, Italy. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

10 Comments

  1. When you spend decades living a lie and covering for it, you get really good at deceitfulness.

    On a related topic, why hasn’t Pope Francis traveled home to Argentina? And why is Jose Carballo, the former head of the Franciscan OFMs, who presided over their “grave, and I underscore grave” financial irregularities (per Carballo’s successor in 2014), now involved in governing all consecrated orders, after presiding during the raping of his own?

    • The logical next step is for a group of cardinals to investigate the continuous sex abuse scandals and cover-ups surrounding Pope Francis as well as the apparent contradiction of this papacy from defined Catholic doctrine and issue not a dubia, but a correction.

  2. I disagreed entirely that Vigano “undermined his brief”, given that it has been admitted by the Vatican via Ouellet that punitive sanctions were indeed imposed on McCarrick (including a travel ban and a ban on public appearances) which Pope Francis clearly lifted. To argue whether these restrictions qualify as “canonical sanctions” is semantics at this point in time. Furthermore as Fr. Gerald Murray (a Canon Lawyer) only the Pope (being Benedict XVI at the time) could have imposed the type of restrictions on McCarrick, which means they are “canonical” in that sense.

    The Zanchetta scandal proves, along with McCarrick, Inzoli, Barros and others, that Pope Francis has chosen to promote and morally corrupt prelates who share his views. For this reason Pope Francis is part of the problem, not solution, to the abuse crisis and he needs to step down.

  3. A solution to these problems of accusations and denials can be found only in public trials. Those who make the complaint are assured that the complaint is made public, but must also be compelled to testify in a court; the defendant has an opportunity to cross-examine the accuser. Let the evidence be seen by the public. We are beyond the point where the Church, and this Pope, can be trusted with handling these situations.

    • There are plenty of sinners within the Church. That’s a given. But I’ve always been more amazed by the saints than I am disheartened by the hypocrites. After all, all it takes to be a hypocrite is to be human, while it takes supernatural grace to be a saint.

  4. What is it going to take to convince people that Francis simply has a tin ear on this issue. Since first appearing as Pope with Cardinal Daneels behind him (Daneels is deeply implicated in an almost ridiculous abuse scandal in Belgium) Francis has shown that the abuse crisis does not concern him. Look at his D9 – Cardinal Errázuriz has just “retired” (after being forced to testify about abuse in Chile): Cardinal Maradiaga – perhaps the closest Cardinal to Francis has been deluged with charges in Honduras and his top subordinate Bishop Pineda resigned just a few months ago due to outrageous financial scandal and open homosexual behavior. Then there’s Cardinal Coccopalmerio – another prominent member of Team Francis, who was kicked out of a drug – homosexual orgy in an apartment down the hall from where Francis hangs his hat in the Vatican (an apartment previously reserved for members of the CDF, until Francis changed the arrangement). Francis defended Weurl. I don’t know why Mr. Olson is picking on Vigano – all of the actual evidence we have clearly shows that he was right concerning cardinal McCarrick and Francis. And now we’ve got Bishop Zanchetta – an Argentine associate of Francis. (Should we look at the amazing events at the Papal Foundation where Francis broke all precedent and obtained a $25 million bailout for a corrupt Italian hospital?) No wonder Francis didn’t want the US Bishops to get the laity involved in bringing integrity back into the Church – there are simply too many bits of the web heading directly to the Pope’s door. I’ll stick my neck way out and predict that nothing of importance will be done in the upcoming abuse meeting in the Vatican. It’s hard to think of anyone close to power in the Vatican that doesn’t have hands soiled in abuse or financial scandal. And let’s throw in the betrayal of the Chinese Catholics – a brainstorm pushed by McCarrick, Parolin and bought by Francis. Pray for the Church.

  5. As for the Barros case, there is no proof other than the words of Juan Carlos Cruz, who has lied about another matter, and other members of the youth group run by Kardadina don’t support Cruz’s allegations. It is extremely unlikely that someone like Karadina would abuse kids in the presence of others. Besides, how is it that Cruz only accused the two bishops involved? He stated that he was not into it for money, but he has sued the Archdiocese of Santiago for $600,000. He is not credible. Neither Barros nor the other bishop named Valenzuela have been indicted for any crime much less sentenced, so they ought to be protected by the presumption of innocence, but that doesn’t apply to priests, obviously.

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