The global Catholic leadership crisis deepened on Monday, when Crux cited anonymous sources in Argentina in a report claiming two young men have lodged criminal complaints with civil authorities, alleging Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta abused them.
The Crux report also cites anonymous sources as saying there is “no proof, no evidence” the Bishop emeritus of Orán, Argentina, Gustavo Zanchetta ever abused minors, but confirming “high-octane pornographic material” depicting young men — not minors — was found on Zanchetta’s phone.
The Crux report also quotes a source as saying Bishop Zanchetta engaged in “suspicious” behavior. “I saw him hugging 16-year old boys,” the report quotes a source in Argentina as saying, “[I] saw that the bishop was giving some of the students a beer, but nothing beyond that.”
“Several people from Salta spoke with Crux in the past week,” the report explains, “but all requested their identities be kept private out of fear of retaliation, because they don’t want to interfere with the ongoing civil investigation, or because they’re ashamed of what was done to them.” Basically, rank-and-file Churchmen in Orán are terrified of the blowback from this scandal.
Their concern is understandable. Argentina’s El Tribuno newspaper reported late last year that Bishop Zanchetta had been making threatening phone calls from Rome. “I fall now,” Zanchetta reportedly told a priest of Orán when press reports carrying the real reason for his resignation began to circulate, “but you all are going to fall.”
Both in Rome and in Argentina, the attitude of clerics seems to be of terrified shoulder-shrugging. The general consensus seems to be that, in the absence of actionable evidence of criminal wrongdoing against minors, the only thing to do with a bishop who also happens to be a pervert is to give him a cushy Vatican post.
“The pope acted as he should have acted at the time,” Crux quotes one source as saying. “He saw that there was a man who was not suitable for ministry but who wasn’t a criminal, and took him to Rome.”
A priest from Bishop Zanchetta’s former diocese of Orán told Crux, “[Zanchetta’s] removal from the diocese was as it should have been.” The source is further quoted as saying, “What needs to be investigated is what happened after, when the accusations escalated. Someone began covering up for Zanchetta, and they’re the ones who are deceiving the pope.” Another source suggested Pope Francis did well “[to] lock [Zanchetta] up in the Vatican, where he had no access to seminarians.”
The attitude does fit the pattern that has emerged over the course of the past couple of years, not only with bishops, but with wayward clerics generally. Sometimes, these hard cases had allegations to their names, and even formal criminal charges. Sometimes, they received a Vatican posting. Other times, they already had one.
In February of last year, Msgr. Pietro Amenta received a 14-month suspended sentence as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time on charges of child pornography possession and sexual molestation of a young adult male. Amenta was a sitting judge of the Roman Rota at the time of his arrest, and kept his seat on the bench until he’d worked out his plea deal, at which time he resigned the post.
There has been no word on Amenta’s case — no announcement of canonical proceedings against him — and canon law currently lacks a specific provision making it a crime to possess pornographic material depicting minors above the age of fourteen. Pope Francis recently said he thinks it is time to change that.
The Amenta story did not get as much traction as it might have, owing in large part to the burgeoning scandal out of Chile at the time. Pope Francis repeatedly accused three men of calumny, saying he had “no evidence, no proof” from them that Bishop Juan Barros — then of Osorno, Chile — ever covered up the abuse they suffered at the hands of Fernando Karadima, then the country’s most notorious abuser priest (Francis expelled Karadima from the clerical state in September of 2018).
Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and José Andres Murillo — the three men Pope Francis was so certain were guilty of calumniating Bishop Barros — were among those, on the strength of whose testimony the Church’s own canonical court found then-Fr. Karadima guilty of abuse in 2011.
Also, it simply wasn’t true that Pope Francis had no evidence of Bishop Barros’ wrongdoing. In 2014, Francis received a lengthy letter from Mr. Cruz, detailing the awful ordeal Cruz and others suffered, and explaining the role of Barros in it. Pope Francis has never publicly acknowledged receipt of Cruz’s letter.
Nor is the use of the Vatican as a dumping ground for troubled clerics new to the Francis era.
A priest of the Diocese of Trenton quietly resigned his position as Defender of the Bond at the Roman Rota last November, a few months before his name appeared on the list of clergy credibly accused of abuse in his home diocese. The priest, Msgr. Joseph Punderson, had been in Rome since 1993. The Holy See learned of the allegation against Punderson no later than 2004, but allowed him to continue in service for nearly 15 years, albeit under secret restrictions.
When it comes to Bishop Zanchetta, we know Pope Francis had evidence of his misbehavior in 2015, and heard more serious complaints in 2016 and 2017, before accepting Zanchetta’s resignation and creating a post for him inside the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See — APSA — which oversees the Vatican’s real-estate and financial holdings.
The place Pope Francis carved out for Bishop Zanchetta — whom he knew from their days together in the bishops’ conference of Argentina, where Zanchetta served as executive undersecretary and Pope Francis was president from 2005-2011 — may have been a sinecure. Still, the decision to put Zanchetta in the APSA is still a real head-scratcher, quite apart from the more lurid allegations against him. Zanchetta was also reportedly suspected of failure to report income from the sale of diocesan property.
If all this is surprising, it shouldn’t be. The Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, has essentially admitted there is a so-called “lavender mafia” within the Curia. The surmise, to which the record points, is that their presence is nobody’s business unless and until a member gets himself convicted of a real-life, you’re-going-away crime.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!