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The Zanchetta affair (Part 5): the Pope speaks

October 03, 2022

[For background, see:

Valentina Alazraki is the dean of Vatican correspondents: since 1974, she has covered the Vatican for the Mexican media company Televisa. In 2021, Pope Francis, in recognition of her long service, conferred on her the rank of Dame of the Grand Cross of the Pian Order (papal address).

May 28, 2019 saw the broadcast and publication of an interview between Alazraki and Pope Francis. Alazraki’s interview was wide-ranging, and between her questions and follow-up statements, she spoke or interjected 109 times. In October 2020, it was discovered that Alazraki had also asked the Pope about same-sex civil unions, but that Vatican officials had edited out the exchange, which later surfaced in a documentary by Evgeny Afineevsky.

Nearly 6% of Alazraki’s published interview was devoted to Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta. Alazraki’s questions to the Pope about Zanchetta took place against the backdrop of a criminal investigation, a canonical investigation, and articles published in the preceding five months.

Criminal and canonical investigations

In February 2019, two former seminarians of the Diocese of Orán in Salta Province, Argentina (map), filed criminal complaints against Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who had governed the diocese from August 19, 2013 until August 1, 2017. The seminarians alleged that Zanchetta had sexually abused them.

In a letter to the diocese, published three days before Pope Francis accepted his resignation, the 53-year-old bishop said that he had met with the Pope and offered his resignation for health reasons. Later in 2017, on December 19, Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta the assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA). Under the papal regulations in force, APSA managed the Holy See’s real estate and other assets and investments.

“Thanks to God and to the Virgin Mother, my health has been fully restored, and I can assume with joy and availability this new mission entrusted to me by the Holy Father to accompany him closely and help him in his ministry as universal pastor,” Zanchetta wrote at the time.

On May 8, 2019, the two former seminarians accompanied María Soledad Filtrin Cuezzo, the local criminal prosecutor for family and gender violence, as she inspected the seminary, diocesan offices, and bishop’s residence in Orán. Silvia Noviasky (articles, Twitter), a journalist at El Tribuno, Salta Province’s principal newspaper, reported that other men also said that Bishop Zanchetta had abused them while they were in seminary, but that “fearing reprisals,” they declined to lodge criminal complaints.

As the criminal investigation into the abuse allegations proceeded, so, too, did the canonical investigation.

On February 5, 2019, Bishop Zanchetta’s successor in Orán, Bishop Luis Antonio Scozzina, OFM, announced that the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops had named Archbishop Carlos Alberto Sánchez of Tucumán as the investigator in Zanchetta’s canonical proceedings. Noviasky reported that clergy in Orán reacted with alarm, as Sánchez and Zanchetta were “very friendly.”

Two days later, 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.

On May 25, 2019, Noviasky reported that Archbishop Sánchez had been investigating allegations of mishandling of finances as well as allegations of sexual abuse. Zanchetta, Noviasky said, was under investigation for receiving government grants for parish capital projects, but then funneling the money to other purposes. Noviasky reported that Sánchez had met recently with Pope Francis—and indeed, the Pontiff had received a group of Argentine bishops, including Archbishop Sánchez, on May 16.

The canonical and criminal investigations were being conducted in the shadow of three articles—the first two of which had led to formal Vatican denials.

Articles on Zanchetta

On December 28, 2018, Noviasky 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. A week later, Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Holy See Press Office, responded with a statement in which he acknowledged that Zanchetta had been accused of sexual abuse but denied that he had been accused at the time of his August 2017 resignation or his December 2017 appointment to APSA. Gisotti said that Zanchetta had not been accused until autumn 2018.

On January 20, 2019, Msgr. Juan José Manzano—an Orán parish priest who until recently had been one of the diocese’s two vicars general—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.

In May or June 2017, Manzano said, he and two other Orán 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.”

Two days after the AP article, on January 22, Gisotti issued a second statement in which he criticized “misleading reconstructions” related to Bishop Zanchetta. Gisotti stood by his earlier statement—“with firmness,” he emphasized.

On February 21, 2019, Noviasky published a blockbuster article on three complaints made to the Vatican by Orán diocesan officials:

  • a back-channel complaint, made in late September 2015, about the discovery on Zanchetta’s cell phone of pornographic images of Zanchetta himself, as well as “pornographic images of explicit homosexual sex between youths”; this complaint led to an early October 2015 meeting between the Pope and Zanchetta at the Vatican
  • a formal complaint to the apostolic nunciature in Buenos Aires, made in April 2016 by five Orán priests—two vicars generals, the seminary rector, and two Sardinian missionary priests—that documented in writing the back-channel complaint, as well as allegations that Bishop Zanchetta committed acts of financial impropriety and sexual harassment of seminarians
  • another formal complaint to the nunciature, made in 2017, that included statements from seminarians who alleged Zanchetta had sexually abused them; this complaint led the Pope to ask Zanchetta to resign

In her article, Noviasky published two JPEG images of documents that substantiated her reporting:

  • a statement written by Luis Amancio Díaz, a layman who was then secretary-chancellor of the diocese, in which he recounted his discovery of pornographic images on Zanchetta’s cell phone, Zanchetta’s sudden trip to the Vatican, and Zanchetta’s reaction upon his return
  • the text of the formal complaint to the nunciature, dated April 22, 2016

Three days after the blockbuster article appeared, a reporter asked about Zanchetta at a Vatican press conference (video, 1:08:10). Gisotti responded:

You all are very familiar with the statement that I gave. We also said that clearly an investigation has been opened and obviously the investigation is still underway. Therefore, we can provide the results and give you a statement once it’s been concluded.

The Pope speaks: introductory exchange

Against the backdrop of the criminal investigation, the canonical investigation, and Noviasky’s reporting, Alazraki began:

Speaking still about lack of information, or that not everything reaches you, in Argentina, for example, the media say that people had given information about Msgr. [Bishop] Zanchetta, that you here in the Vatican all knew, you personally brought him here, you personally put him in a position that you created practically out of nothing for him. People do not understand that.

Pope Francis responded, “No, but you have to explain it to people”—leading Alazraki to say, “Because of that, I would like you to explain it.”

The Pontiff said, “Do you wish that I explain it now? I do so with pleasure,” to which Alazraki replied, “If you wish.”

Pope Francis then began his explanation:

Yes. So before I asked him for the resignation, there was an accusation, and I immediately made him come here with the person who accused him, and to explain it. An accusation with a telephone.

The Pope’s initial words were significant for four reasons.

First, the Pope confirmed the broad outlines of Noviasky’s reporting. He confirmed that an accusation involving pornographic images found on Zanchetta’s cell phone led quickly to a meeting with him at the Vatican. He confirmed that he had asked Zanchetta to resign in 2017.

Second, the Pope implicitly cast doubt on Bishop Zanchetta’s truthfulness.

The Pope made clear that he took the initiative in requesting Zanchetta’s resignation. However, in his late July 2017 letter to the faithful of the Diocese of Orán, the bishop implied that he had taken the initiative to resign for health reasons.

“For a long time, a health problem has not allowed me to carry out fully the pastoral ministry entrusted to me, especially considering the vast extension of our diocesan territory, and the enormous challenges we face as Church in the north of the country,” Zanchetta wrote. “That is why I have placed this decision in the hands of the Holy Father, which I believe is the best, especially thinking of you, rather than of myself, and because the recuperation I must face cannot be made here.”

Third, by confirming the broad outlines of Noviasky’s reporting, Pope Francis called into question the credibility of his own spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, the interim director of the Holy See Press Office.

After Manzano, the former Orán vicar general, went on the record to discuss the fall 2015 discovery of pornographic images, the subsequent meeting between the Pope and Zanchetta, and the spring 2017 complaint that led to Zanchetta’s resignation. Gisotti issued a statement in which he blasted “misleading reconstructions” related to Bishop Zanchetta.

But now, four months later, the Pope confirmed the broad outlines of Manzano’s revelations. The “misleading reconstructions” were not so misleading after all, and observers were left wondering whether statements from the Holy See Press Office could be trusted—and which senior Vatican officials had helped shape Gisotti’s statements on Zanchetta.

Fourth, Pope Francis revealed that “the person who accused” Zanchetta was also present at the October 2015 Vatican meeting between the Pope and Zanchetta. But who was the accuser? Noviasky’s blockbuster article, backed up by the documentary evidence of the JPEG images, set forth the following timeline of events:

  • On September 21/22, 2015, Bishop Zanchetta asked Luis Amancio Díaz, the layman who was then secretary-chancellor of the diocese, to upload photographs from his cellphone to the diocesan Facebook page. Díaz transferred a file of photographs from Zanchetta’s cell phone to his computer. As he searched for the photographs Zanchetta asked him to upload, Díaz discovered pornographic selfies “sent from his cell phone to another person,” as well as “pornographic images of explicit homosexual sex between youths,” “received from another person through WhatsApp.”
  • On September 29, Díaz met with Msgr. Gabriel Alejandro Acevedo (then vicar general and rector of the cathedral). After their meeting, Acevedo sought advice from two elderly Sardinian missionary priests who had been in Orán since the 1980s and previously held leadership positions there. They advised him to tell Father Martin Gregorio Alarcon, the rector of the seminary.
  • Acevedo and Alarcon then called Zanchetta’s predecessor, Bishop Marcelo Colombo, who was now leading a different diocese. Colombo advised them to call Archbishop Mario Cargnello of Salta, the metropolitan archbishop, and also a former bishop of Orán.
  • Acevedo and Alarcón spoke by telephone with Archbishop Cargnello. Cargnello asked the two priests promptly to give him the material on a pen drive.
  • On September 30, Acevedo asked Díaz for a copy of the images on a pen drive. Acevedo and Alarcón hand delivered a copy to Archbishop Cargnello. After looking at the material, Cargnello “warned of the gravity of the situation, Bishop Zanchetta being a personal friend of the Holy Father, [and] decided to communicate with the Cardinal Primate” (Cardinal Marco Poli of Buenos Aires).
  • Cardinal Poli received the information and asked Acevedo to call the apostolic nunciature to inform the nunciature that confidential information “of the most grave character” about Bishop Zanchetta was in Poli’s hands.
  • On October 3, Zanchetta received a phone call stating that he was urgently needed in Rome.
  • On October 8, Zanchetta returned from Rome, confronted Díaz, and said that he had been told in Rome that his secretary-chancellor had taken the images on a pen drive to archdiocesan officials in Buenos Aires, to be given to Cardinal Poli.

Thus, the “person who accused” Zanchetta—the one present at the October 2015 meeting between the Pope and Zanchetta—was most likely Archbishop Cargnello, Msgr. Acevedo, or Father Alarcón.

The Pope speaks: 2015 and 2017 meetings with Zanchetta

After the Pope’s initial words, Alazraki interjected, “Images …”

Pope Francis then said:

Yes. But in the end the defense from him is that it [the cell phone] had been hacked, and he defended himself well, then faced with the obvious and with a good defense, the doubt remains, but in dubio pro reo [in a matter of doubt, rule for the accused], so, well, go back. And the cardinal from Buenos Aires came so that he might be witness of all this.

And in following it, I followed it now in a special manner. Evidently he had in his behavior, a behavior—some say despot—bossy, so the economic management of things does not seem on the whole clear—this is not proven. But certainly the clergy felt not well treated by him.

They complained, they complained until as clergy they made a denunciation to the nunciature. I called the nunciature, and the nuncio told me: “I should consider the matter of the denunciation is serious because of maltreatment”—we could say abuse of power, eh? They didn’t refer to it in this way, but come on. I made him come and asked the resignation from him. Very clear.

I sent him to Spain to take a psychiatric test; some media said, “And the Pope gave him a summer vacation in Spain as a present.” He went to take a psychiatric test; the result of the test was within the norm; they recommended the treatment of a traveler [i.e., outpatient treatment], one time per month. To travel to Madrid to have two days of treatment—so it was not convenient that he should return to Argentina for that.

So I had him here, and as the test said, he had the capacity of good diagnosis of management—assessor, assessor. Some interpreted it here in Italy as a “parking space.”

As he divulged some of the details of his October 2015 meeting with Bishop Zanchetta and his accuser, Pope Francis said that Cardinal Mario Poli of Bueno Aires acted as a witness.

In doing so, the Pope, whether consciously or unconsciously, evoked the language of Christ’s teaching on fraternal correction, in which the Savior speaks of a gathering of the accused, the accuser, and two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16). If the Pope was the first witness to the conversation between the accused and the accuser, then Cardinal Poli was the second.

In his subsequent interpretation of this passage, Pope Francis referred to the presence of witnesses as he said:

Although it may seem a disadvantage to the accused, in reality it served to protect him against false accusers. But Jesus goes further: the two witnesses are called not to accuse and judge, but to help. ‘But let us agree, you and I, let us go talk to this man or woman, who is mistaken, who is making a bad impression. Let us go as brothers and speak to him or her’. This is the attitude of rehabilitation that Jesus wants from us.

The manner in which the Pope has interpreted Matthew 18:16, coupled with his decision to summon the accused, the accuser, and another witness to their October 2015 conversation, suggests that the Pope may have entered the meeting with an “attitude of rehabilitation,” with a desire “not to accuse and judge, but to help” the one “who is mistaken, who is making a bad impression.” It may explain the Pope’s willingness to believe Zanchetta’s “good defense” in the face of the evidence of the pornographic images, evidence that the Pope described as “the obvious.”

After discussing the October 2015 meeting with Zanchetta, Pope Francis told Alazraki that he subsequently followed the Zanchetta case “in a special manner.” He was aware of Zanchetta’s “bossy” behavior toward his priests, as well as allegations of financial impropriety. He was aware of the clergy’s multiple complaints against Zanchetta (“they complained, they complained …”). The Pope then discussed the 2017 formal complaint to the nunciature that led to Zanchetta’s resignation.

The Pope, however, passed over the opportunity to discuss the earlier April 22, 2016 formal complaint made by five diocesan priests to the nunciature. That complaint included allegations of sexual harassment against seminarians. The five priests who made the complaint said that Zanchetta would “watch over them [the seminarians] at night, walking through their bedrooms at late hours with a flashlight, or ask that they give him massages, or get into their bedrooms at the hour of rising and sitting on their beds, or egg them on to drink alcoholic beverages,” and that Zanchetta had “certain preferences for those who were more good-looking.”

Entirely passing over the 2016 complaint, the Pope told Alazraki that after receiving the 2017 complaint, “I called the nunciature, and the nuncio told me: ‘I should consider the matter of the denunciation is serious because of maltreatment’—we could say abuse of power, eh? They didn’t refer to it in this way, but come on. I made him come and asked the resignation from him.”

There was something so serious in the 2017 complaint—something beyond the pornographic images in the 2015 complaint, something beyond the allegations of financial impropriety and sexual harassment in the 2016 complaint—that Pope Francis was moved to summon Zanchetta to Rome and demand his resignation, rather than convene another meeting of accused, accuser, and witnesses.

Silvia Noviasky of El Tribuno had reported that the 2017 complaint contained allegations of financial mismanagement, abuse of power, and the sexual abuse of seminarians, and included statements from seminarians who alleged Zanchetta had sexually abused them. But in his interview with Alazraki, Pope Francis referred only to allegations of abuse of the power and of “unclear” financial management (allegations that were “not proven,” the Pope said), but not to allegations of sexual abuse and statements from seminarians.

This presents an unsettling series of alternatives:

  • Noviasky’s reporting, substantiated in so many of its details, was spectacularly wrong when she reported that allegations of sexual abuse, including statements from seminarians, were part of the 2017 complaint to the nunciature.
  • The apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, communicated to Pope Francis the allegations of abuse of power and financial impropriety, but withheld the allegations of sexual abuse.
  • Pope Francis, knowing that Zanchetta had been accused of sexual abuse, demanded his resignation as bishop of Orán, but nonetheless appointed him assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See less than five months later.

The Pope speaks: the APSA appointment

In his interview with Alazraki, Pope Francis said that he had appointed Zanchetta the assessor of APSA after a psychiatric test in Madrid indicated that Zanchetta had “the capacity of good diagnosis of management”—in other words, good management consulting skills. Yet Zanchetta had been accused of financial impropriety as bishop of Orán. Why, then, appoint him assessor of APSA, which manages the Holy See’s real estate and other assets and investments?

Thus, Alazraki interjected, “And they criticized it [the appointment] because he said that there [in Orán] he had not had bad management, and you put him here in APSA.”

Pope Francis responded at length:

It was not so. Economically, it was disordered, but he did not have bad economic management over the works he had done. It was disordered, but the vision is good.

And I started to look at the succession [i.e., a new bishop in Orán]. Once there was a new bishop, in December of the past year, I decided to do the preliminary investigation into the accusations that he had. I designated the archbishop of Tucumán, and the Congregation of Bishops proposed various names to me, and I called the president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, I made him choose, and he said the best for this is the archbishop of Tucumán.

Of course, the middle of December in Argentina is like the middle of June here: I mean celebrations, and afterwards, January-February is like July-August here. But they did something.

It [the preliminary investigation] is the thing that came to me—it will now be 15 days. The preliminary investigation has already arrived. I read it, and I saw it was necessary to do a trial. Then I passed it to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; they are doing the trial.

So, why this whole story for you? In order to say to them, to impatient people [who say], “He does nothing,” the Pope does not have to go about publishing what he is doing every day, but I was not inactive from the first moment of this case. There are cases that are long, that look for more, like this one, and I explain it because it did not have the elements for one reason or another, but today it is in the judgment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I mean, I have not stopped.

The Pope’s words were significant for several reasons.

First, Pope Francis revealed that Archbishop Sánchez was chosen as the investigator in Zanchetta’s canonical proceedings at the recommendation of the president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Bishop Óscar Vicente Ojea Quintana of San Isidro.

Second, the Pope revealed that he ordered the canonical investigation into the abuse allegations in December 2018—over two and a half years after five Orán priests informed the nunciature of allegations of sexual harassment of seminarians, and a year and a half after the nunciature (according to Noviasky) had received statements from seminarians who alleged Zanchetta had sexually abused them.

Third, in defending his decision to appoint Zanchetta as APSA’s assessor, the Pope portrayed the allegations of financial mismanagement against Zanchetta as relatively insignificant—so insignificant that they did not prevent him from being appointed to the dicastery that manages that Vatican’s real estate and other investments.

Yet Noviasky had reported that during the canonical investigation, Archbishop Sánchez had investigated the allegations of financial mismanagement along with the allegations of sexual abuse. If those financial allegations were now being considered as part of the canonical trial of Bishop Zanchetta, the Pope’s sentiments about their insignificance would not be lost on the officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who would conduct the trial.

Fourth, in defending his decision to name Zanchetta as assessor, Pope Francis painted a picture of the factors that contributed—and did not contribute—to his appointment as an official in the dicastery that manages the Holy See’s real estate and other assets and investments:

  • Zanchetta’s grave abuse of power, as well as any other grave allegations that triggered the Pope’s immediate demand for Zanchetta’s resignation as bishop of Orán, did not prevent the Pope from appointing Zanchetta to APSA less than five months later.
  • “Disordered” economic management is distinct from “bad economic management,” and “disordered” management did not prevent Zanchetta’s appointment to APSA.
  • What matters, said the Pope, is good vision: “he did not have bad economic management over the works he had done. It was disordered, but the vision is good.”
  • The results of the psychiatric testing in Madrid mattered as well: “as the test said, he had the capacity of good diagnosis of management—assessor, assessor.”

The Pope speaks: final exchange

Alazraki then said, “It’s that I think that it is important to tell it, eh?”

Pope Francis responded:

Just now I tell it. But I am not able to every time. But I have not stopped. Now, in what [manner] the trial is going to finish, I do not know, I leave it in the hands of them. From the fact of [his] being bishop, I have to judge it, but in this case, I said, “No.” Let them make a tribunal, they hand over the sentence, and for all of you I promulgate it. Because in this Argentine case, he saw …

Alazraki then interrupted the Pontiff mid-sentence and moved on to a new topic of conversation. “It is that for people sometimes, you obviously are not able to explain everything every day, but between the press and the people, confusions are created. Or people do not understand. There comes to my mind, for example, the case of Cardinal Barbarin of Lyon …”

Pope Francis’s comments on the Zanchetta affair thus drew to a close with a statement that he would not intervene in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s eventual judgment in the case, as well as a pledge to publish the Congregation’s decision once it was made.

During the interview with Alazraki, the Pontiff divulged new details about the Zanchetta affair and confirmed a number of the details in Noviasky’s reporting. In doing so, he undermined the credibility of Zanchetta, who had offered a far different account of his resignation, as well as his own spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, who had criticized Noviasky’s reports as “misleading.”

But Pope Francis did not take the opportunity to comment on the April 2016 formal denunciation to the nunciature that Zanchetta was sexually harassing his seminarians. Nor did the Pope comment on the report that allegations of the sexual abuse of seminarians, including statements from the seminarians themselves, were part of the subsequent 2017 formal denunciation to the nunciature which—as the Pope acknowledged—led him to demand Zanchetta’s resignation.

Did Pope Francis know of allegations of sexual abuse against Zanchetta when he appointed him the assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See on December 19, 2017? If the Pope did know, he certainly didn’t acknowledge it; if he didn’t know, he missed a golden opportunity to set the record straight.

 


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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 05, 2022 10:31 AM ET USA

    This is a very important report. Thank you for putting it together! The homosexual abuse of seminarians is what leads to the creation of tight, powerful, secretive, and harmful to the entire Church networks of corrupt clergy with very questionable promotions into the hierarchical ladder. In my opinion, the ordinations between partners in acts of sexual depravity cannot be valid. Such ordinations are mockery of the Holy Spirit. It needs to be declared by the Church.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 04, 2022 2:04 AM ET USA

    Recall that in the opening months of Francis' pontificate he firmly downplayed the seriousness of sexual sins, saying words such as "who am I to judge?" He also thought that priests when speaking from the pulpit were narrowly obsessed with abortion, the homosexual disorder, and contraception. In 2019 he said "sins of the flesh are the lightest sins". In 2013 he was either out of touch with reality or deceptive. In my experience, only 1 priest prior to the FSSP ever preached about sexual sins.

  • Posted by: altoidnews7416 - Oct. 03, 2022 5:20 PM ET USA

    It's painfully clear that Pope Francis took a wave and a miss here. But it's just another case of incredibility under this pontificate.