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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