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Zanchetta affair exposes culture of fear, indifference

Both in Rome and in Argentina, the attitude of clerics seems to be of terrified shoulder-shrugging.

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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.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 110 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.

13 Comments

  1. From the article; “… a man who was not suitable for ministry but who wasn’t a criminal, and took him to Rome.”

    Actually, he was a criminal. No, not yet charged, but having committed a crime he was/is a criminal.

    A worldwide problem — decades and centuries in existence — systemic and systematic. A theology not adhered to by the clergy who teach it nor by those who supervise the clergy. Making it a theology one should, at the very least, question and, at the most, leave in the rear view mirror.

    • Your last sentence is a non-sequitur. The fact that a large minority fail to live up to a standard is not sufficient reason to abandon the standard. If it were, we should all embrace anarchy, because every government eventually abuses its power (especially its police power) somewhat, and a great many governments abuse their power monstrously; yet we need governments and police to be able to maintain civilization. For that matter, it is not unheard of for firefighters to be fascinated with fire to the extent they actually become arsonists, yet this is no reason to conclude that we need to rethink whether we should allow fires to burn unchecked.

  2. “I fall now, but you all are going to fall.” A striking exclamation in an otherwise non extraordinary account we’re familiar with. Reading between Altieri’s lines is the more impressionable. Is the Vatican a merciful refuge for the fallen. Or a presentiment, A haunt of devils and a cage for every foul spirit and dirty, loathsome bird (Rev 18, 2). Alec Guinness stared in the oldie The Lavender Hill Mob analogous to Lavender Mafia buffoonery. What the cast of the former lack in talent they redeem with mobster like exclamation. At once comical though in reality fearsome considering Archbishop Vigano and Msgr Lantheaume remain in hiding. So do we chuckle along and as do many clergy sit and wait believing it will all go away in time. The stakes are too high.

    • It looks like the Lavender Mafia buffoonery, who have infected the whole Church — including the highest levels of the Vatican — are behind the Church’s ever-increasing accommodation of the world’s rejection of traditional sexual morality.

    • Father, that very toxic phrase “I fall now, but you all are going to fall” is an explanation as to how and why McCarrick got away with his crimes for so long.

    • Correction should read: What the cast of the latter lack in talent. Also Alec Guinness ‘starred’ in the oldie. Please note I’m making progress.

    • Fr. Morello, I’ve been praying for a complete purification of our Church. Some of the traditional teaching of the Church has fallen by the wayside. We need to have all clergy teaching authentic Catholic Doctrine; the confusion among the Faithful is overwhelming! We need to get back to basics, so that everyone will know where the Church stands.

      • June clergy are suffering loss of memory due to too many Florida vacations or selective memory due to the comfort of a peaceful bland innocuous ministry that offends no one and strengthens no one. If I cast the first stone I do it with no exemption from what Christ wrote on the sand. It must be said and we as priests must call out to each other truthfully. Leadership on hierarchal level is what’s required and what’s lacking. The laity seem more intuned with our dilemma and perhaps the miracle of intervention will result there.

        • Thank you Father Peter…

          yes you are right- how many are hiding the truth – they know the truth – but live in fear of revealing it or doing anything about it! In this way the Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops or priests ‘who hide any of these men who have firstly betrayed Our Lord Himself, then His Bride the Church – and then we the laity — these men will indeed be before (are already) God’s own judgment.
          Do they not know that? Have they fallen so far, that they have forgotten what The Lord Himself told them? But many priests //seminarians also must know the truth – they too must come forward – at any cost! We are talking about our Holy Mother Church here…-
          Those who hide the truth will answer to God Himself – as ‘those ones’ are destroying the Church (and they know it) and the faithful…
          ‘better for that man that…’

  3. The sickening sexual aspect of all of this is actually a plus for these narcissists. It distracts the faithful (the “dummies” ) from the money network/hiring scheme, the room and board plus travels expenses and luxuries core of it all and let’s not forget the proverbial power trip disguised as “joy” and “humility.”

    With no regard for Christ’s teachings or the “degradation of their bodies” their club, mafia, cult provides a sense of Mutually Assured Destruction. In some ways, among these thugs (Zanchetta, McCarrick and yes, Bergoglio included) their ultimate mediocrity and counterfeit is best realized in the plagiarist, Rosica. He is emblematic of the hiring scheme component where hype is all…not virtue…and “flattery” will indeed get you everywhere.

    With little to no mention of efficacious grace these days in sermons nor practical understanding of it among the laity and clergy, there is a counterfeit sense of “mercy” where one’s being able to repent itself is presumed and this is the most pernicious aspect of their legacy. Indeed there is ultimately no need to “repent” really.

    Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us. St. Joseph, pray for us.

    • what gives me some consolation in this Dark Night of Our Beloved Mother Church – is that thankfully we still have some Cardinals – Burke, Brandmuller, Sarah, Zen (wow!! and just look at the suffering of our Catholic Chinese brothers and sisters – now being more persecuted than ever, our churches are being destroyed…) Mueller, and our great Archbishop Vigano – !! and Bishop A.Schneider – all speaking out constantly to support us the faithful – and many many holy priests who are fighting the Good Fight .. .. These give us encouragement to continue to carry this heavy Cross with Our Lord .. in this dark Night – which we will come out of.. Our Lady, our Mother is with us… Let us never lose heart…
      and may the evil ones be removed – and may their network be completely destroyed..
      ..and it will be..

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