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The Zanchetta affair (Part 6): the Sostituto intervenes

October 17, 2022

[For background, see:

The Sostituto, or Substitute, is a powerful figure within the institutional Church: as head of the Section for General Affairs within the Secretariat of State, he coordinates the internal affairs of the Roman Curia. His section has other responsibilities, including the drafting of some papal documents and the coordination of matters involving ambassadors of other nations to the Holy See.

The Sostituto reports to the Secretary of State, who in turn reports to the Roman Pontiff. Since 1875, every Sostituto has been named a cardinal, usually following the completion of his work as Sostituto. One Sostituto (Giovanni Battista Montini) was in time elected Pope and later canonized (Pope St. Paul VI).

In 2018, Pope Francis named Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, 58, the apostolic nuncio to Mozambique, as Sostituto, to replace Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, whom the Pope had appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and named a cardinal. A native of Venezuela, Peña Parra was ordained to the priesthood in 1985 and entered the diplomatic service of the Holy See in 1993. Over the years, he served in Kenya, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Honduras, and Mexico, as well as at UN offices in Geneva. Pope Benedict XVI ordained him a bishop in 2011 and appointed him apostolic nuncio to Pakistan; Pope Francis transferred him to Mozambique in 2015.

On June 3, 2019, Archbishop Peña Parra provided a document to a bishop accused of sexually abusing his seminarians. That document, issued just three days before the bishop’s arraignment, helped sway a judge to allow the bishop to leave his native country for the Vatican for seven weeks, even though the local prosecutor wanted the bishop to remain in the country as she continued her investigation into the accusations.

An outside observer cannot know whether the issuing of the document was a banal bureaucratic act, or whether it was intended to interfere with a criminal investigation—but that was certainly its effect from the prosecutor’s perspective.

The arraignment of Bishop Zanchetta

On June 6, 2019, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta appeared in a courtroom in San Ramón de la Nueva Orán (also known simply as Orán), a remote city of 80,000 in Salta Province in northern Argentina (map), some 7,000 miles from the Vatican.

Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta had governed the Diocese of Orán from August 19, 2013 until August 1, 2017, when Pope Francis accepted his resignation. In a July 2017 letter to the faithful, Zanchetta said that he had just returned from Rome, where he had presented to Pope Francis his letter of resignation.

“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.”

On December 19, 2017, Pope Francis appointed Zanchetta the assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which manages the Holy See’s real estate and movable assets.

“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 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.

A week later, on January 4, 2019, Alessandro Gisotti, the 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 from Orán or his December 2017 appointment to APSA. In his statement, Gisotti said that “during the preliminary [canonical] investigation, Bishop Zanchetta will abstain from work” for APSA.

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 a bishop to conduct the canonical investigation. That same month, two former seminarians, alleged they had been sexually abused, filed criminal complaints against Zanchetta.

In an interview published May 28, Pope Francis revealed that he had received the results of the canonical investigation around May 13, and that the investigation had led him to ask the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to conduct a canonical trial.

Parallel to the canonical investigation, the criminal investigation in Argentina was proceeding as well, and thus on June 6, Zanchetta was arraigned on charges of simple sexual abuse of two seminarians, aggravated by his status as a bishop. Zanchetta, facing the prospect of three to ten years in prison, was represented by a public defender, Enzo Rubén Giannotti, and Zanchetta refrained from speaking during the proceeding at Giannotti’s advice.

At the request of Mónica Viazzi, an interim prosecutor, Judge Claudio Alejandro Parisi ordered Zanchetta to remain in Argentina, to refrain from obstructing the investigation, to refrain from “physical or psychological aggression” toward the defendants, and to refrain from any contact with the defendants and their families. Parisi kept Zanchetta’s travel documents and ordered the prelate to undergo psychiatric testing on June 12.

Zanchetta complied with the order, and on June 21, Judge Parisi—over the objection of María Soledad Filtrin Cuezzo, the local criminal prosecutor for family and gender violence—permitted Zanchetta to return to the Vatican for “work reasons”—reasons “of a work nature,” he said—on condition that he return to Argentina and appear in court on August 8.

Though Zanchetta left Orán quickly, Filtrin, angered by the decision, filed an appeal and said Zanchetta’s absence would hinder her investigation, as she might need to question him.

Filtrin also feared that Zanchetta would follow the example of Father Alessandro de Rossi. The Argentine priest (also from Salta Province, but from a different diocese) was ministering in Rome when Interpol arrested him for allegedly sexually abusing minors in Argentina; Italian authorities, however, declined to extradite him.

Zanchetta, however, did not follow de Rossi’s example, and returned to court in San Ramón de la Nueva Orán on August 8 as ordered. Judge Parisi again confiscated his travel documents and asked him to stay in Oran—or to inform him if he went elsewhere in Argentina.

On August 23, however, Parisi again reversed his decision and returned Zanchetta’s travel documents: the prosecution’s investigation had concluded, Parisi said, and Zanchetta had complied with all his previous orders.

The “work reasons” that Parisi cited on June 21 again factored into his August 23 decision to permit Zanchetta to travel back to the Vatican. “To maintain the measures of coercion imposed would be to deprive the same (i.e., Zanchetta) of being able to continue with his daily work,” Parisi said.

There was one problem with Judge Parisi’s statement: Zanchetta had been suspended from his work at the Vatican and thus had no “daily work” to which to return—let alone “daily work” that he needed to “continue.”

Why, then, was Parisi under the false impression that Zanchetta needed to be “able to continue with his daily work” at the Vatican?

The Sostituto’s certificate

On January 4, 2019, Alessandro Gisotti, the interim director of the Holy See Press Office, said in a statement that “during the preliminary [canonical] investigation, Bishop Zanchetta will abstain from work” for APSA.

That suspension from work duties was still in effect as Parisi rendered his June 21 and August 23 court decisions. In June 2019, Gisotti told Inés San Martín of Crux that Zanchetta remained “suspended.”

“I can confirm that the situation concerning [Bishop] Zanchetta’s working activity has not changed since 4th January,” Matteo Bruni, the new director of the Holy See Press Office, told The Catholic Herald in September 2019.

How then, was Judge Parisi led to believe that Zanchetta needed to leave Argentina and return to the Vatican to be “able to continue with his daily work,” as Parisi put it?

On August 28—just five days after Zanchetta was again allowed to return to the Vatican—Noviasky reported that Zanchetta had earlier handed Judge Parisi a labor certificate attesting that Zanchetta “currently renders collaboration as assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See,” in the words of her paraphrase of the certificate’s language.

Inés San Martín of Crux, who was also in Orán at the time and saw the certificate, reported that Zanchetta’s defense gave the certificate to Parisi in June. The certificate, she added, “says that the bishop is ‘employed by the Vatican,’ where he works at the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) and ‘lives in the Santa Marta residence,’ the hotel within Vatican grounds where Francis has lived since the beginning of his pontificate. There’s no mention that Zanchetta has been suspended from his position.”

The certificate, issued on June 3, 2019, was signed by the Sostituto, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, as well as by Vincenzo Mauriello, an attorney who worked in Archbishop Peña Parra’s office. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI had named Mauriello a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory; in February 2022, Mauriello, by then a former Vatican official, testified at the Vatican financial trial (AP, Pillar coverage).

The language of the certificate was not technically false—Zanchetta was a current employee of the Vatican, albeit a suspended employee—but it conveyed the false impression Zanchetta had current work to which he needed to return.

“The note, presented by the bishop’s defense team in June to get Judge Claudio Parisi to lift the bishop’s travel ban, was accepted as evidence without further ado,” San Martín reported.

The certificate’s timing

Archbishop Peña Parra, the Sostituto, issued the labor certificate on June 3, just six days after publication of the Pope’s interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki. During that interview, Pope Francis had severely undermined Zanchetta’s credibility.

In July 2017, Zanchetta told the faithful of the Diocese of Orán that he had offered his resignation to the Pope for health reasons. The Pope’s account of Zanchetta’s resignation was far different:

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.

In December 2017, following his appointment to APSA, Zanchetta linked his appointment to a cure: “Thanks to God and to the Virgin Mother, my health has been fully restored.” Again, the Pope’s account was different:

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.

During that interview, Pope Francis also emphasized that he actively supported the canonical investigation and eventual trial of Zanchetta:

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.

Archbishop Peña Parra’s decision to issue Zanchetta a work certificate just six days after the Pope’s comments, and three days before Zanchetta’s arraignment, leads one to wonder why the Sostituto rendered this assistance. The Pope, after all, had made clear that Zanchetta could not be trusted and that he wished Zanchetta to face the judicial process, at least canonically.

This gives rises to some troubling questions:

  • After Pope Francis made clear in an interview that Zanchetta could not be trusted and that he wished Zanchetta to face the judicial process (at least canonically), why did Archbishop Peña Parra issue a certificate that Zanchetta’s legal team so easily used to deceive a judge?
  • Why did the work certificate fail to mention that Zanchetta was suspended from his work?
  • The work certificate used the present tense in describing Zanchetta’s work for the Vatican: it said that Zanchetta is “employed by the Vatican” (according to San Martín) and that Zanchetta “currently renders collaboration as assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See” (in the words of Noviasky’s paraphrase). The language was ambiguous: it stated he was a current Vatican employee, but implied he was currently working at the Vatican. Was the ambiguity intentional?
  • If the ambiguity was not intentional, why did Archbishop Peña Parra not issue a public statement dissociating himself from the manner in which Zanchetta’s legal team used his certificate?
  • Once he learned that his certificate affected a criminal investigation because it led a judge to believe Zanchetta needed to be “able to continue with his daily work” at the Vatican, why did Peña Parra not issue an anguished protest?
  • Did Peña Parra act on his own initiative? Or did his superior, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, direct him to assist Zanchetta? Or did Pope Francis himself direct Peña Parra to assist Zanchetta?

These questions become even more poignant because the Sostituto issued the labor certificate just two days after the provisions of the Pope’s apostolic letter Vos Estis Lux Mundi went into effect.

“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” Pope Francis wrote. “In order that these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed, attested by concrete and effective actions that involve everyone in the Church, so that personal sanctity and moral commitment can contribute to promoting the full credibility of the Gospel message and the effectiveness of the Church’s mission.”

To that end, Pope Francis in Vos Estis called for the investigation of cardinals, bishops, and other Church leaders who, by their “actions or omissions, intended to interfere with or avoid civil investigations or canonical investigations, whether administrative or penal, against a cleric or a religious regarding the delicts [offenses] referred to in letter a) of this paragraph.”

The canonical offenses to which Vos Estis refers include child pornography, “performing sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person,” and “forcing someone, by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.”

The seminarians whom Zanchetta was eventually convicted of sexually abusing were not minors; nor were they vulnerable persons as defined by Vos Estis. (“‘Vulnerable person’ means any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense.”) But to the lay observer, the acts of sexual abuse for which Bishop Zanchetta was convicted appear to fall under the provisions of Vos Estis because they occurred “through abuse of authority.”

If so—and if Peña Parra issued the labor certificate with the intent to “interfere with” the prosecutor’s investigation in Orán—then the Sostituto would appear to have violated Vos Estis just two days after it went into effect. After all, María Soledad Filtrin Cuezzo, the local criminal prosecutor for family and gender violence, certainly thought that Zanchetta’s 45-day departure from Orán after the June 21 court hearing hindered her criminal investigation.

Based on our present knowledge of the Zanchetta affair, it would be calumny for an outside observer to assert that Archbishop Peña Parra, without a doubt, intended to interfere with a criminal investigation by providing Bishop Zanchetta with the certificate that allowed him to leave Argentina for 45 days over the prosecutor’s objection. It is plausible that Archbishop Peña Parra, too, may have been, in his own way, one of Zanchetta’s victims, his work certificate too easily used by Zanchetta’s legal team to achieve a result that Peña Parra did not foresee, let alone intend.

At the same time, it is irresponsible for the journalist of today, or the historian of tomorrow, not to raise the question of intent. As to the answer, only the Sostituto knows.


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  • Posted by: johnhinshaw8419405 - Oct. 17, 2022 8:29 PM ET USA

    This Sostituto (Pena Parra), according to Archbishop Vigano, has a file of some size in the Vatican detailing his sexual abuse of minors and others. The "boys" sure do protect each other don't they? Whatever one may think of Vigano's take on the eschaton, his accusations within the Church in the wake of the McCarrick scandal have never been proven wrong. The first accusations made in 2018 received 39 corroborations and confirmations, until I stopped counting.