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The Zanchetta affair (Part 7): ‘Lucas’ and Father Belda Iniesta

November 21, 2022

[For background, see:

Warning: This article includes sexually graphic language allegedly used by a bishop.

For fifteen days in August 2019, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, arraigned on charges of sexually abusing two of his seminarians, was not permitted to leave Argentina—until a work certificate signed by the powerful Sostituto convinced a judge that Zanchetta was needed back at the Vatican for his daily work, even though Zanchetta in fact had been suspended from his professional duties eight months earlier, when allegations of sexual abuse against him were made public.

The prelate had governed the Diocese of Orán, a remote diocese in Salta Province in northern Argentina (map), from August 2013 until August 2017, when Pope Francis accepted his resignation, offered putatively for health reasons. In December 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.

When Zanchetta appeared in Judge Claudio Parisi’s courtroom in Orán on August 8, 2019, the judge confiscated the prelate’s travel documents. That same day, Inés San Martín of Crux interviewed “Lucas.” Four days later, she published Lucas’s sordid tale.

The witness of “Lucas”

“Lucas,” a seminarian from 2014 until 2018, said he was not sexually abused by Zanchetta, but described how Zanchetta attempted to groom him and his seminary classmates. Lucas was one of some twenty current and former seminarians who had spoken with María Soledad Filtrin Cuezzo, the local criminal prosecutor for family and gender violence, during her investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against Zanchetta.

San Martín reported:

According to Lucas, Zanchetta had “his favorites,” who would receive gifts and party into the night with him in the seminary. It happened, he said, any day of the week the bishop was there.

Zanchetta would roam the seminary at night, give the priests-to-be alcohol, kiss them on the neck and share overtly sexual jokes. One of those who accused the bishop was once awakened by the prelate sitting in his bed, touching his genitalia.

The former seminarian acknowledged that he was able to say no to the bishop when he offered gifts—including a new computer—because of the formation he’d received at home.

“My parents taught me that it’s not proper to receive a gift when it’s not deserved,” Lucas said. “I had done nothing to deserve a new computer, and I didn’t want to accept it and then have to do something to deserve it.”

“During pizza and movie night, the bishop once told us that he hadn’t had an erection that day.” Lucas recalled. “He doesn’t belong in the priesthood, and he should never have been made a bishop. He was manipulative and had disgusting attitudes.”

Lucas’s interview with San Martín was important because it corroborated the formal complaint made to the apostolic nuncio by five Orán priests in April 2016. In that complaint, the two vicars-general, the seminary rector, and two Sardinian missionary priests alleged that Zanchetta was sexual harassing his seminarians; they told the nuncio that Zanchetta would

watch over them 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, or certain preferences for those who were more good-looking, and an obsessive omnipresence in seminary life, creating for them a sensation of asphyxiation, all this according to comments of the same seminarians.

Lucas also said he “was manipulated and pressured into covering up concerns about the bishop,” San Martín reported.

“The person who I thought was helping me, wanted to keep me quiet,” Lucas said—possibly a reference to Bishop Luis Antonio Scozzina, OFM, who became the new bishop of Orán in May 2018. (Lucas may also have been referring to Archbishop Andrés Stanovnik, the apostolic administrator of Orán from August 2017 until May 2018, or to Archbishop Carlos Alberto Sánchez of Tucumán, the prelate who in early 2019 conducted the canonical investigation into the allegations.)

“Lucas says that there’s at least one more seminarian who could come forward,” San Martín added. “Today, however, according to Lucas, he lives at the expense of the local church, has been seen driving the cathedral’s truck late at night, and went from poverty to being a homeowner overnight.”

Criminal and canonical financial investigations

Zanchetta, charged with sexual abuse, was also under criminal investigation for suspected financial crimes. On August 24, 2019, Silvia Noviasky (articles, Twitter), a journalist at El Tribuno, the principal newspaper in Salta Province, reported that two prosecutors were investigating Zanchetta for potential financial crimes, including the misuse of government grants. On November 7, the Orán police’s economic crime unit raided diocesan offices “for alleged fraud against the state from 2013 to 2017,” San Martín reported.

She explained:

Public records show that Zanchetta received over one million pesos, close to $250,000 at the time, from the provincial government for the restoration of a parish rectory and for a series of lectures in the local seminary that never took place. Zanchetta has also been accused of mismanaging church funds donated by the faithful and of keeping the sale of a Church-owned property off the books; the funds raised through the sale remain unaccounted for.

The Vatican had been informed of the allegation of the off-book sale over three years earlier. In April 2016, the five Orán priests who alleged that Zanchetta was sexually harassing his seminarians also alleged financial mismanagement. In doing so, the priests discussed the origin of the funds for the construction of the seminary and work on the cathedral.

A property, they said, was sold in the town of Aguas Blancas for $200,000, and the diocesan college of consultors discussed the sale. But an additional donated property was sold for $800,000, without reporting the sale—and without consultation with the college of consultors or authorization from the Holy See—“because, according to the bishop, His Holiness personally suggested that it not appear anywhere, to prevent the diocese from being considered less needy.”

In other words, the five priests, in their notarized complaint to the nuncio, wrote that Zanchetta had said that Pope Francis had asked Zanchetta to keep the sale off the books, so that the diocese could continue to be considered a needy diocese (and thus, presumably, be eligible for additional funding).

Subsequently, in the spring of 2017, priests from Orán sent an additional formal complaint to the nunciature—a complaint that, Pope Francis said in a May 2019 interview, triggered the Pope’s demand for Zanchetta’s resignation as bishop of Orán. Noviasky reported that this complaint included allegations of abuse of power, financial mismanagement, and sexual abuse, including statements from seminarians.

Even though Zanchetta was under canonical investigation for financial malfeasance as well as sexual abuse, and even though the canonical trial had not yet taken place, Pope Francis in a May 2019 interview downplayed the allegations of financial crimes. Referring to Zanchetta’s economic management in the Diocese of Orán, the Pope said:

The economic management of things does not seem on the whole clear—this is not proven … 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.

International arrest warrant

Bishop Zanchetta appeared four times in Judge Claudio Parisi’s courtroom in Orán in June and August 2019. When the judge permitted Zanchetta to return temporarily to the Vatican (between June 21 and August 8), and again when he permitted Zanchetta to reside at the Vatican (after August 23), he said that Zanchetta had complied with all of his orders and restrictions. Back at the Vatican, however, after the fourth appearance, Zanchetta started to ignore queries from the Argentine justice system.

Zanchetta “failed to respond to numerous telephone calls and email inquiries” from prosecutor María Soledad Filtrin Cuezzo, Charles Collins of Crux reported. With a court hearing scheduled and Zanchetta refusing to respond to her communications, Filtrin issued an international warrant for Zanchetta’s arrest. Zanchetta lived in Casa Santa Marta, the hotel within Vatican grounds where Pope Francis has lived since the beginning of his pontificate, and the Vatican and Argentina had no extradition treaty.

At this point, Father Javier Belda Iniesta, a Spanish diocesan priest and Zanchetta’s canonical advocate, made his first public appearance in the Zanchetta affair as Zanchetta’s spokesman.

Father Javier Belda Iniesta

Born in 1979, Father Belda hails from Spain and is a prolific scholar whose writings have centered on medieval canon law (Academia, ResearchGate).

He worked first in the Archdiocese of Zaragoza but in 2013 began to teach at the Catholic University of Murcia in Spain. In 2015, he was incardinated in the Diocese of Cartagena, in which Murcia is located, and was appointed parochial vicar of a parish there (p. 471); the parish appointment ceased in December 2021.

At the university, Father Belda was the third-ranking official at the international doctoral school. In 2016, the anti-plagiarism software company Turnitin gave Father Belda a Global Innovation Award for demonstrating “commitment to academic integrity and excellence in learning through the innovative and effective use of Turnitin and other educational approaches.”

During the 2016-17 academic year, Father Belda was also a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he taught classes there on Mondays (p. 32).

In 2017, Father Belda was named the Catholic University of Murcia’s Dean of the Faculty of Human, Canonical, and Religious Sciences.

In his work as a scholar, Father Belda had the opportunity to meet many academic, civil, and ecclesiastical dignitaries. In 2016, for example, he joined a US State Department official and an EU official in Jerusalem on a three-person panel discussion on refugees. In 2018, he joined Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, himself a scholar of medieval canon law, on the dais in Rome for the release of a book on canon law.

While remaining dean at the Catholic University of Murcia, Father Belda also became the international coordinator and fourth-ranking official at the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences. As Pope Francis refounded the Institute, he named Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia the Grand Chancellor in 2016; the following year, Archbishop Paglia also became president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

At the refounded John Paul II Institute, Father Belda ranked behind Archbishop Paglia, Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri (the dean), and Msgr. Gilfredo Marengo (the vice-dean). In October 2022, when asked whether Belda was still associated with the John Paul II Institute, Archbishop Paglia told a reporter that Belda had resigned from the Institute because “he had to do other things.”

In addition to his positions at his parish, at the University of Murcia, and at the refounded John Paul II Institute, and in addition to his work on behalf of Bishop Zanchetta, Father Belda has also provided legal and investigative assistance to Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra of Madrid. In this capacity, Father Belda joined Cardinal Osoro and an auxiliary bishop at a meeting with Pope Francis in 2020 to discuss legal issues involving Madrid’s archdiocesan foundations.

In May 2021, the Catholic University of Murcia fired Father Belda when university officials found they were unable to confirm he had earned two of the degrees listed on his résumé. Nonetheless, Father Belda remained Bishop Zanchetta’s canonical advocate and spokesman.

Father Belda’s dismissal for academic dishonesty did not deter Cardinal Osoro from placing continued confidence in him: Belda has continued his work on behalf of Spain’s leading prelate into autumn 2022.

Nor have reports of Father Belda’s academic dishonesty deterred the Holy See and Pope Francis himself from entrusting him with important responsibilities.

In June 2022—three months after Zanchetta’s conviction in a civil court—Father Belda conducted a preliminary investigation into alleged canonical offenses committed by persons who had testified against Zanchetta. Father Belda noted he was conducting the investigation by decree of the Holy See. Belda’s dual role as Zanchetta’s canonical advocate and as canonical investigator of those who testified against Zanchetta was seen by observers inside and outside Argentina as a blatant conflict of interest.

In the summer of 2022, Pope Francis named Father Belda his delegate to broker a dispute between Archbishop Mario Antonio Cargnello of Salta, Argentina, and the Discalced Carmelite nuns there, in part over the nuns’ support of an alleged visionary who claimed she was receiving apparitions of the Virgen del Cerro (Virgin of the Hill), whose shrine has attracted up to a million pilgrims a year. To outside observers, Father Belda’s appointment as the Pope’s delegate also presented an obvious conflict of interest: Archbishop Cargnello provided crucial assistance to Zanchetta’s accusers, while Belda is Zanchetta’s canonical advocate.

Not unexpectedly, Belda’s mediation on Pope Francis’s behalf resulted in a setback for Archbishop Cargnello, as well as a reversal for the Congregation (now Dicastery) for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, led by Cardinal João Braz de Aviz. In April 2022, the Congregation, after conducting an investigation that involved a visitation to Salta, decided that the Discalced Carmelites “should not in any way get involved in activities” promoted by the alleged visionary, “nor support this activity.”

On September 3, however, following Father Belda’s mediation as papal delegate, the Dicastery issued a new statement permitting the nuns to have their own private devotions. And remarkably, Archbishop Cargnello, softening years of disapproval of the devotion, issued a statement in which he emphasized that the faithful of the archdiocese could have their own private devotion to the alleged apparition. He also authorized a priest to celebrate Mass at the alleged apparition site—something he had done previously, but not in 2021.

In essence, then, Father Belda had the power to compel a dicastery of the Roman Curia and a metropolitan archbishop in Argentina to modify their previous decisions concerning an alleged private revelation. That Pope Francis granted such power to a priest with a reputation for academic dishonesty will provide material for reflection for future historians of the pontificate.

A defiant response

Father Belda entered the scene in the Zanchetta affair when he issued a public response to the international arrest warrant issued by Orán prosecutor María Soledad Filtrin Cuezzo. Filtrin issued the warrant after Zanchetta refused to respond to repeated phone calls and emails.

Father Belda’s statement was as strident as it was lawyerly:

  • A prosecutor’s “simple request” is different from “an order issued by the competent judicial authority”—with the implication that Zanchetta was obliged to heed orders from judges, but could ignore communications from investigators.
  • Just because Zanchetta hadn’t responded to the prosecutor’s phone calls and emails didn’t mean that Zanchetta wouldn’t appear in court, as the prosecutor had inferred.
  • When Zanchetta had received notification that he was to appear in court in Argentina on November 27, the notification did not include a request for a reply.
  • Zanchetta had always heeded judicial orders, as Judge Claudio Parisi noted when he permitted him to return to the Vatican in August. It was unreasonable for the prosecutor to assume that Zanchetta’s cooperative attitude had changed.
  • The prosecutor, by casting public aspersion on Zanchetta, has violated Zanchetta’s right to privacy and the presumption of innocence in his case.
  • “Bishop Zanchetta is the first person to have the interest in clarifying the whole truth about the case, in order to restore his dignity and his honor,” and so he will continue to cooperate with the competent judicial authorities.
  • Even though the prosecutor has muddied the waters by casting public aspersion on him, Bishop Zanchetta believes he will receive a fair trial.

Following Father Belda’s statement, sources in the judiciary told El Tribuno, the principal newspaper in Salta Province, that the new judge in the case, María Laura Toledo Zamora, like the prosecutor, had also tried to contact Zanchetta, but that Zanchetta had failed to respond to her as well.

Even though Father Belda was Zanchetta’s canonical advocate, and not his civil attorney, Father Belda joined Zanchetta when he traveled to Orán and appeared before Judge Toledo on November 27, 2019. Bishop Zanchetta wore clerics; Father Belda, as is his custom, wore a business suit (photograph).

“The hearing was to establish who represents Zanchetta,” the Associated Press reported, “and his contact details. No date was set for the start of the trial … The judge allowed Zanchetta to return to the Vatican, where he holds a financial post, on condition that he not change lodgings from the Santa Marta hotel—a lodging also used by the pope—without the court’s permission.”

At the hearing, it was established that Zanchetta would continue to be represented in civil proceedings by Enzo Rubén Giannotti, the public defender who had represented him the previous summer.

“A question of perception”

Following the hearing, Father Belda went on a public-relations offensive, holding a press conference and granting interviews—but only to the friendliest journalists.

At a press conference at an Orán hotel, Father Belda described allegations of sexual abuse against Zanchetta as a “question of perception.”

“We are talking about embraces that last longer than normal or that the interested party may feel lasted longer than normal,” Father Belda said. “About kisses that instead of falling on the cheek as you greet each other by kissing, can fall on the ear and neck. We’re talking about putting your hand on one leg, or even some off-color jokes. We are talking about facts very different from what it seems in the end.” The prosecution has the burden of proof, he said, to show that such acts rise to the level of criminal sexual abuse. Zanchetta’s defense attorney, Father Belda added, had lodged an objection to a trial because the prosecutor had allegedly engaged in procedural irregularities. Zanchetta had been given a psychiatric test, Belda said, that was no longer recognized in the field.

Invoking pontifical secrecy, Father Belda also said that he could not discuss the separate canonical proceedings against Zanchetta.

In addition to holding a press conference, Father Belda granted an interview to Revista Norte—an online publication with a limited readership that covers news in Orán. (The publication has fewer than 150 Twitter followers, while the newspaper El Tribuno has over 130,000).

Revista Norte had taken an aggressively pro-Zanchetta stance in a series published in August and September 2019 (parts 1, 2, 3). The publication alleged that three Orán priests—presumably the two vicars-general and the seminary rector who had sent written complaints to the apostolic nuncio—were rebels against Zanchetta’s authority.

Twenty current and former seminarians had provided witness statements to the prosecutor, and Revista Norte examined the witness statements of priests and seminarians alike for inconsistencies. The publication also reported that one of the two former seminarians who lodged criminal complaints against Zanchetta in February 2019 had traveled to Brazil with his former seminary rector a month earlier.

In his comments to Revista Norte, Father Belda spoke about the pornographic photographs that formed the crux of the first complaint made to the Vatican by Orán diocesan officials. This back-channel complaint, made in late September 2015, led to an early October 2015 meeting between the Pope and Zanchetta at the Vatican.

“What expertise tells us,” said Father Belda, is that “there are inexplicable things in some photographs, and in others it is that, directly, it is not Msgr. [i.e., Bishop] Zanchetta.” A professor at the University of Cádiz (Spain) judged that the photographs were forgeries, the Madrid Catholic publication Vida Nueva reported—and Revista Norte alleged that Msgr. Gabriel Alejandro Acevedo (then vicar general and rector of the cathedral), Msgr. Juan José Manzano (then vicar general), Father Martin Gregorio Alarcón (then rector of the seminary) and Luis Amancio Díaz (then the lay secretary-chancellor) all conspired to fabricate the photographs.

Father Belda also granted an interview to a journalist particularly close to Pope Francis: Elisabetta Piqué of the Argentine newspaper La Nación. In 2013, Piqué wrote a laudatory biography of Pope Francis, and the book’s publisher said that she “has remained close to the Pope since first meeting him back in 2001”; indeed, he has baptized two of her children. In April 2022, Pope Francis revealed that he was speaking with Piqué every two or three days as she covered the war in Ukraine.

In his interview with Piqué, Father Belda spoke about Zanchetta’s emotional pain and described him as “hurt” but “calm.”

“The situation has gotten out of hand, and it seems as if [Bishop] Zanchetta was responsible for war crimes,” Father Belda said. Citing a line of graffiti in Orán—“Zanchetta rapist”—Belda said that “there is a cruelty, there is much confusion with regard to the accusation, since nobody is accusing him of rape, but of simple sexual abuse, which can be a hug that perhaps was considered excessive.”

“But he did not rape anyone,” Father Belda added. “It is not about minimizing the alleged facts, but putting them in context.”

Piqué reported that Belda said that in Orán, “there was no one protesting, but people waving in the street very kindly.” Apparently Father Belda was unaware of the demonstration that took place at Orán’s cathedral, less than a block away from the hotel where Father Belda gave his press conference. At the cathedral, protestors from the Orán Women’s Collective praised “those who made the courageous decision to denounce the abuses suffered because of Gustavo Zanchetta,” and demanded that “justice act quickly on the complaints.”

One of the hallmarks of Pope Francis’s pontificate has been his emphasis on the importance of peripheries, the margins far from centers of power. “The Son of God did not choose Jerusalem as the place of his incarnation, but Bethlehem and Nazareth, two outlying villages, far from the clamor of the news and the powers of the time,” the Pontiff said in 2021. “The choice of Bethlehem and Nazareth tells us that periphery and marginality are preferred by God.”

That contrast was an apt metaphor for the state of the Zanchetta affair as 2019 drew to a close.

Close to the center of ecclesial power, the voice of Father Javier Belda Iniesta resounded. He suggested that his client, Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, was guilty of nothing more than misunderstood affection. Indeed, Zanchetta was the true victim, as it were—a victim emotionally wounded by media hype, a victim hounded by an overzealous prosecutor, a victim of treacherous diocesan officials who conspired to fabricate pornographic photographs.

But from the peripheries, from the margins, from a remote Argentine city some 7,000 miles from the Vatican, the voice of “Lucas” spoke. He said that Zanchetta had sexually harassed and groomed his seminarians, that Zanchetta would “roam the seminary at night, give the priests-to-be alcohol, kiss them on the neck and share overtly sexual jokes,” that Zanchetta had used sexually graphic language that it is shameful to repeat.

In the years that followed, the voice of the one would grow only more influential in the halls of Vatican power—but the voice of the other would find validation in an Argentine court of law.


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  • Posted by: feedback - Nov. 21, 2022 5:39 PM ET USA

    The many pieces of the Zanchetta puzzle reveal a truly repulsive underbelly of moral corruption at the highest - and traditionally most trusted - levels of the Church hierarchy. Ordinations to the Priesthood in exchange for gay sex cannot be valid, in my opinion. It's ironic how following the Vatican's recent rah-rah against evils of "clericalism," it took a lay court in Argentina to deliver a just verdict. This also looks like a reason why pope Francis has no interest in visiting his homeland.