The Zanchetta affair (Part 1): the bishop’s rise
August 22, 2022
[On March 4, 2022, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, former bishop of Nueva Orán, Argentina, and assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, was convicted of sexually abusing two seminarians. As the sixth-month anniversary of the verdict approaches, Catholic World News begins an in-depth look at the case.]
San Ramón de la Nueva Orán is a remote city in Salta Province in northern Argentina, close to the Bolivian border (map). Located over a thousand miles from Buenos Aires, the nation’s capital, San Ramón de la Nueva Orán is 175 miles from the provincial capital, also named Salta.
From the early 1600s, colonial Spanish forces attempted to conquer the remote area, but met with determined resistance from the indigenous inhabitants. On August 31, 1794—the feast day of St. Raymond Nonnatus—a local Spanish governor definitively conquered the area. The governor, who was born in Orán, Algeria, christened the city San Ramón de la Nueva Orán, after the saint of the day and the city of his birth.
In 1961, St. John XXIII established the Diocese of Nueva Orán with territory taken from the Archdiocese of Salta. The city is the province’s second largest: the provincial capital of Salta today has 620,000 people, and San Ramón de la Nueva Orán has 80,000.
Both the city and the diocese are sometimes called simply Orán, and the diocese is small but growing. In 1966, the diocese had 18 priests and only eight parishes; by 2019, it had 42 priests and 27 parishes.
The diocese has served as a training ground for new bishops. Following the death of the first bishop in 1969, Orán’s second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth bishops each ministered there for four to eleven years before being transferred to other dioceses.
In 1683, a diocesan priest and a Jesuit priest were martyred fifteen miles from what is now San Ramón de la Nueva Orán; they have long been venerated as the martyrs of Zenta. They were beatified very recently, on July 2, 2022, in the most prominent ecclesial event in the diocese’s history. Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, made his way there from Rome to celebrate the Mass of beatification, and the apostolic nuncio and two dozen bishops concelebrated (video).
On the eve of the beatification, the diocese’s eighth bishop, Bishop Luis Antonio Scozzina, OFM, said, “We celebrate the consecration of a martyred community, who listened to the Word and the Spirit, and embarked on the mission; they walked together with the sole objective of bringing Jesus.”
The Diocese of Orán is a “martyred community” in more than one sense. On March 4, 2022, the diocese’s seventh bishop, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, was convicted of sexually abusing two seminarians, and sentenced to four and one-half years in prison.
The rise of Gustavo Zanchetta
Gustavo Zanchetta was born in 1964 in Argentina’s third-largest city, Rosario, in Argentina’s Santa Fe Province (map). He grew up far from the city, however, in a rural area in Córdoba Province (map). There, he attended the Mateo J. Molina School in La Falda, a small town, and Our Lady of Calvary Institute (photograph) in Valle Hermoso, another small town two miles away.
Zanchetta went to high school at the Technical Industrial Institute in La Cumbre, nine miles from La Falda, and received his high school diploma in December 1982 as a mechanical electrician technician. Zanchetta was a volunteer firefighter and was involved with the Juventud Franciscana (Franciscan Youth).
The Capuchin Franciscan friars minister in La Cumbre and La Falda, and in March 1984, Zanchetta entered the Capuchin Franciscan order, making his postulancy and novitiate in Quilmes, a city of 230,000 near Buenos Aires, located 500 miles from where he grew up. Zanchetta left the order in October 1988.
In February 1990, Zanchetta entered the major seminary of the Diocese of Quilmes. After taking classes at the diocese’s Center of Philosophical and Theological Studies and at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Zanchetta was ordained to the priesthood in December 1991.
Bishop Jorge Novak, who led the Diocese of Quilmes from 1976 until his death in 2001, was known for his courageous advocacy on behalf of human rights during Argentina’s Dirty War. In 2017, with Rome’s approval, the diocesan phase of his cause of canonization began. The postulator of the cause is Archbishop Marcelo Colombo, a Quilmes priest who preceded Zanchetta as bishop of Orán.
Zanchetta was clearly a rising star. Bishop Novak appointed him:
- parochial vicar of the cathedral, December 1991—August 1992
- director of the diocesan preseminary, August 1992—December 1996
- administrator of a parish in Bernal, August 1992—August 1998
- treasurer and member of the formation team at the diocesan major seminary, August 1992—August 1998
- professor at the diocesan Center of Philosophical and Theological Studies, 1992-1998; there, Zanchetta taught courses in moral theology, the theological virtues, creation, and theological anthropology
- private secretary to the bishop, March 1997—August 1998
Zanchetta also began the first of his two stints with the Episcopal Conference of Argentina: he worked as adjunct secretary of the Episcopal Commission of Ministries (March 1993—August 1998).
In September 1998, Bishop Novak sent Zanchetta to the Pontifical Latin American College in Rome for advanced theological studies. In June 2000, he received his licentiate degree in fundamental theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Zanchetta’s career continued to flourish under Bishop Novak, who died in 2001, and his successor, Bishop Luis Stöckler, who led the diocese from 2002 to 2011. Between 2000 and 2008, Zanchetta was
- private secretary to the bishop
- professor at the Holy Spirit Institute in Quilmes, which forms teachers; Zanchetta taught classes in spiritual theology, creation and theological anthropology, eschatology, and pastoral theology
- professor of theology at the Catholic University of La Plata
- beginning in 2001, pastor of a parish in Berazategui, a city of 170,000, and chaplain of the Quilmes Volunteer Firefighters Society
- beginning in 2005—while remaining pastor of the parish—administrator of a second parish in Berazategui
- diocesan advisor to the Christian Family Movement (2003-06)
In August 2000, Zanchetta also resumed his work for the Episcopal Conference of Argentina. Between 2000 and 2008, he worked as executive director of the Episcopal Commission of Ministries and director of the National Secretariat for the Permanent Formation of Priests.
In November 2005, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, of Buenos Aires was elected to a three-year term as president of the Episcopal Conference of Argentina; Zanchetta later recalled that he first met Cardinal Bergoglio in 2001. In November 2008, Cardinal Bergoglio was reelected president. A month later, Zanchetta was named executive undersecretary of the episcopal conference.
In December 2008, Zanchetta was also named secretary of the Episcopal Commission for the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, an institution whose leadership was a point of tension between Cardinal Bergoglio and the Vatican under Pope Benedict.
In 2009, Cardinal Bergoglio, with the support of the episcopal conference, appointed Father Víctor Manuel Fernández as the university’s president, but the appointment was an interim one until the Vatican granted formal approval. Argentine Catholics raised concerns with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about the priest’s orthodoxy, and the Vatican’s approval of Fernández was delayed until 2011. Two months after the papal election in 2013, Pope Francis named Fernández an archbishop.
As Zanchetta helped manage the day-to-day business of the episcopal conference, he continued to play a leading role in the Diocese of Quilmes. In 2009, Bishop Stöckler appointed Zanchetta Episcopal Vicar for Economic Affairs, legal agent for the diocese, a member of the College of Consultors, a member of the Presbyteral Council, and a member of the Council of Economic Affairs. In 2010, Zanchetta became legal representative for a Catholic school in Berazategui.
In March 2012, Bishop Stöckler’s successor, Bishop Carlos Tissera, appointed Zanchetta as legal representative for all the diocesan schools. Later in 2012, however, Bishop Tissera and Zanchetta had a falling out, and Bishop Tissera asked the priest to resign from his position of Episcopal Vicar for Economic Affairs, the Buenos Aires newspaper Pagina 12 reported. Zanchetta stopped attending diocesan meetings. Zanchetta remained executive undersecretary of Argentina’s episcopal conference, but his future in his home diocese looked uncertain.
On July 23, 2013, Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta the bishop of Orán. Pagina 12 reported that Catholics in Quilmes who knew him reacted to the appointment with disgust, and that when the apostolic nunciature had conducted consultations about the prospective appointment, there was widespread opposition.
Dr. Santiago Gerardo Spadafora, physician to Bishop Novak and Zanchetta’s predecessor as legal representative of the Catholic school in Berazategui, published a Change.org petition urging Pope Francis to reconsider the appointment. Spadafora wrote that Bishop Tissera had dismissed Zanchetta from all of his diocesan positions because of Zanchetta’s abuse of power; Spadafora also alleged that his own resistance to Zanchetta’s abuse of power had led Zanchetta to testify falsely about him in a criminal case. Spadafora added that before Cardinal Bergoglio was elected pope, he and the cardinal had discussed Zanchetta’s alleged abuse of power by phone and that Cardinal Bergoglio had promised to investigate.
Pagina 12 reported that Zanchetta had no friends among the priests of the Diocese of Quilmes. Another newspaper, Diario La Opinión de Rafaela, soon reported that Zanchetta visited a close priest friend, Father José María Mezzabarba, in Humberto Primo, a rural town nearly 400 miles away from Quilmes, in Argentina’s Santa Fe Province (map). The two priests had met in Rome in 1998. “I get to Humberto Primo whenever I can” in order to rest and to visit his priest friend, Zanchetta told the newspaper.
When Zanchetta was ordained bishop of the Diocese of Orán on August 19, 2013, the episcopal consecration curiously did not take place in Orán, but in the cathedral in Quilmes, over a thousand miles away. The governor and deputy governor of Salta Province, in which Orán is located, made the long journey to Quilmes to attend the consecration.
The new bishop took as his motto “Somos simples servidores”: “We are simple servants” (Luke 17:10). He was only 49.
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- Orán ya tiene Obispo: el Papa Francisco nombró a Monseñor Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta (El Tribuno)
- El Gobernador participó en la ceremonia de consagración del nuevo Obispo de Orán (Gobierno de Salta)
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