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The Zanchetta affair (Part 3): allegations and Vatican denials

August 30, 2022

[For background, see “The Zanchetta affair (Part 1): the bishop’s rise,” and “The Zanchetta affair (Part 2): resignation, Archbishop Stanovnik, and a Vatican appointment.”]

On May 18, 2018, Bishop Luis Antonio Scozzina, OFM, was consecrated the eighth bishop of the remote northern Argentine Diocese of Nueva Orán (also known simply as Orán), in Salta Province (map).

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of his predecessor, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, on August 1, 2017; Archbishop Andrés Stanovnik, OFM Cap, of Corrientes, had served as apostolic administrator during the intervening months. On December 19, 2017, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Zanchetta the assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA).

On November 16, 2018, Bishop Scozzina announced a sweeping series of personnel changes, including the appointment of a new vicar general (who replaced two previous vicars general) and a new secretary-chancellor. Scozzina did not appoint either Zanchetta loyalists or Zanchetta critics to these leading positions; he chose outsiders.

Father Antonello Tuvone, 39, a newly arrived Sardinian missionary priest, was the new vicar general; he had served as rector of the seminary and cathedral of the Diocese of Nuoro, which had been sending missionary priests to Orán since at least the 1980s. Elma Gabriela Carral, a laywoman and Salta schoolteacher associated with the Focolare movement, would be the new secretary-chancellor; in 2014, she devoted her 136-page anthropology thesis at the National University of Salta to a Focolare apostolate among indigenous women.

Scozzina also in effect closed the diocesan seminary. While the introductory course would still take place in Orán, seminarians would go to the seminary in Tucumán for their philosophy courses and to the seminary in Salta for their theology courses. Tucumán is 300 miles away, in an adjacent province (map); Salta, the metropolitan see, is 175 miles away and the capital of Salta Province.

On December 28, 2018, Silvia Noviasky (articles, Twitter), a journalist at El Tribuno, the principal newspaper in Salta Province, reported that Pope Francis had asked Bishop Zanchetta to resign as bishop of Orán after local priests had written the apostolic nunciature in Buenos Aires to accuse him of financial mismanagement, abuse of power, and the sexual abuse of seminarians.

Noviasky reported that Archbishop Mario Cargnello of Salta—a former Orán bishop (1994-98) who had led Orán’s metropolitan archdiocese since 1999—had sided with the whistleblower priests, while Archbishop Stanovnik had interceded with the Pope on Zanchetta’s behalf. Noviasky also reported on the perception that Scozzina’s personnel changes were a form of payback against the whistleblower priests. The priests, she wrote, appeared to be under pressure, and a laywoman in Orán told Noviasky that one of the priests had been hospitalized repeatedly.

On December 30—two days after breaking the story that Zanchetta had been accused of sexually abusing seminarians—Noviasky reported that a furious Zanchetta was making threatening phone calls to Orán priests. “I fall now; but later, you will fall,” Zanchetta reportedly told a priest on December 28, in words that now seem prophetic. In June 2022—three months after Zanchetta’s conviction—Father Javier Belda Iniesta, Zanchetta’s canonical advocate, conducted a preliminary investigation into alleged canonical offenses committed by persons who had testified against Zanchetta. Father Belda said he was conducting the investigation by decree of the Holy See.

On January 3, 2019, the Holy See Press Office published a papal letter to the bishops of the United States. Referring to sexual abuse and the abuse of power, Pope Francis wrote that “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 … 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.”

The following day, Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Holy See Press Office, published a statement on Zanchetta that had the appearance of a cover-up.

“The reason for his resignation is linked to his difficulty in managing relations with the diocesan clergy and in very tense relations with the priests of the diocese,” said Gisotti. “At the time of his resignation, there were accusations of authoritarianism against him, but there had been no accusation of sexual abuse against him [non vi era stata contro di lui alcuna accusa di abuso sessuale]. The problem that emerged then was linked to the inability to govern the clergy.”

“After the period in Spain, in consideration of his administrative management capacity,” Zanchetta “was appointed assessor of APSA (a position that does not, however, provide for responsibility for governance of the dicastery),” Gisotti continued. “No accusations of sexual abuse had emerged at the time of his appointment as assessor. The accusations of sexual abuse in fact date back to this autumn.”

Gisotti added that Bishop Scozzina had begun a preliminary canonical investigation into the allegations:

On the basis of these accusations and the news that recently emerged in the media, the bishop of Orán has already collected some testimonies that have yet to reach the Congregation for Bishops. If the elements to proceed are confirmed, the case will be remitted to the special commission for bishops. During the preliminary investigation, Bishop Zanchetta will abstain from work [for APSA].

On the one hand, Gisotti announced that Bishop Zanchetta was under investigation for sexual abuse—an investigation that the Holy See apparently would not have made public apart from Noviasky’s reporting. On the other hand, Gisotti clearly stated that the Vatican had not received any accusations of sexual abuse against Zanchetta at the time of his August 2017 resignation from Orán, or at the time of Pope Francis’s December 2017 appointment of Zanchetta as APSA assessor. It was not until autumn 2018, Gisotti underlined, that accusations of sexual abuse emerged.

And then there was the curious picture that Gisotti painted of Zanchetta’s strengths and weaknesses:

  • in August 2017, Pope Francis accepted Zanchetta’s resignation from the Diocese of Orán, at least in part because of Zanchetta’s “difficulty in managing relations with the diocesan clergy” and “very tense relations with the priests”;
  • yet despite Zanchetta’s “difficulty in managing relations” with subordinates, he had strong “administrative management” skills: so strong, in fact, that in December 2017, Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta the assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which managed the Holy See’s real estate and other assets and investments;
  • yet despite Zanchetta’s strong “administrative management” skills, the Pope gave him no “responsibility for governance” of APSA.

Vatican statement challenged

Msgr. Juan José Manzano was one of the two vicars general replaced by Bishop Scozzina; he had held that office since 2010, and was now a parish priest and the bishop’s delegate to the Council for Economic Affairs.

On January 20, 2019, Manzano went on the record for the Associated Press, telling Noviasky (who worked with AP on the story) that

in 2015, we just sent a “digital support” with selfie photos of the previous bishop in obscene or out of place behavior that seemed inappropriate and dangerous. It was an alarm that we made to the Holy See via some friendly bishops. The nunciature didn’t intervene directly, but the 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.

After that 2015 meeting between Zanchetta and the Pope, Manzano said that Zanchetta initially “improved, to the point that no one even investigated how those photos got to Rome.” Later, however, Zanchetta started spending extra time with seminarians and drinking with them. The concerned seminary rector, Father Martin Gregorio Alarcon, tried to be present whenever Zanchetta visited the seminary, but Zanchetta “looked for ways to avoid his attention” and sought “to discredit him in front of the young guys,” said Manzano.

In May or June 2017, Manzano said, he and other priests made another complaint, this time to the nunciature, “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.” Msgr. Vincenzo Turturro, a Vatican diplomat who then worked at the nunciature, “moved [the complaint] forward fabulously,” said Manzano.

Manzano also told Noviasky that Cardinal Bergoglio had been Zanchetta’s confessor and that the future Pope looked upon Zanchetta as a “spiritual son.”

Even as Manzano went on the record with these damning revelations—which undercut the Vatican’s insistence that Zanchetta had not been accused of sexual abuse until autumn 2018, well after his resignation from Orán and his appointment to APSA—he made excuses for the Pope and Gisotti.

“There was never any intent to hide anything,” he said. “There was never any intent of the Holy Father to defend him against anything.”

Manzano even “denied there was any contradiction in the Vatican’s [January 4] statement, distinguishing between a report about alleged sexual abuse and a formal complaint,” according to AP’s paraphrase of his remarks. (It appeared to be a distinction without a difference: Gisotti had denied there had been any “accusation” of sexual abuse against Zanchetta before autumn 2018—not any “formal complaint.”)

Gisotti, the interim director of the Holy See Press Office, did not reciprocate Manzano’s gesture: two days later, on January 22, he issued a second statement in which he criticized “misleading reconstructions” related to Bishop Zanchetta. Gisotti stood by his January 4 statement—“with firmness,” he emphasized—and pledged that “information will be given on the results” of the canonical process upon its completion.

On February 5, Bishop Scozzina announced that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops had named Archbishop Carlos Alberto Sánchez of Tucumán investigator in Zanchetta’s canonical proceedings. Noviasky reported that clergy in Orán reacted with alarm, as Sánchez and Zanchetta were “very friendly.”

On February 7, Noviasky reported that Archbishop Sánchez said that he had never previously conducted a canonical investigation of this nature; Sánchez added that he had “no friendship” with Zanchetta. When Sánchez saw he was being recorded, he demanded that the audio recording of his words be deleted.

In February 2019, two former seminarians, lacking full confidence in Bishop Scozzina and the canonical process, filed criminal complaints against Zanchetta. One of them, “Pablo,” told Noviasky that he had received conflicting guidance about whether the sexual abuse of adult seminarians is a canonical offense. Father Loyola Pinto y de Sancristóval, a judge in the ecclesiastical tribunal of the Archdiocese of Salta, told him that it was; Bishop Scozzina, citing a canon lawyer, told him that it was not.

The former seminarian thought that Gisotti used the autumn 2018 date because that was the time frame in which Scozzina had forwarded the seminarians’ abuse allegations to the Vatican. “I choose to believe that the Pope did not receive the information” previously sent to the Vatican by Orán priests, “Pablo” added hopefully.

Sadly, he was wrong.


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  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 30, 2022 10:47 AM ET USA

    "Father, consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me." [John 17:17-21]