The criminal conviction of Bishop Gustavo Oscar Zanchetta for the sexual abuse of seminarians has sent shock waves through the Argentine Catholic Church, and the Vatican.
The conviction also raises questions about the credibility of Pope Francis, a close friend of Zanchetta, on handling abuse allegations. It could well cast a shadow over the pope’s signature reform effort, Vos estis lux mundi, promulgated in the wake of the Theodore McCarrick scandal.
Bishop Zanchetta was sentenced to four years and six months in prison on Friday after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting two former adult seminarians. If he serves his full prison term, the bishop will have spent longer in jail than he did as Bishop of Oran.
While the court focused on his brief tenure leading the diocese, scrutiny is now likely to fall on the years Zanchetta spent in Rome, under the patronage of Pope Francis, who promoted Zanchetta to bishop in one of his first acts as pope, and who created a job for Zanchetta in the Vatican after the bishop resigned from his diocese under a cloud of suspicion.
Zanchetta was appointed Bishop of Oran by Francis in 2013, one of the new pope’s first episcopal appointments. But within two years local clergy were complaining to the Vatican about the bishops’s behavior towards seminarians.
Yet, despite mounting complaints from local priests, Francis sided with the bishop. According to the former vicar general of the diocese, even after obscene photographs of the bishop and of young men were discovered on Zanchetta’s phone, the pope accepted his explanation that he’d been hacked by “conservatives” and “anti-Francis” forces in the diocese.
Even after the pope finally accepted Zanchetta’s resignation in 2017 — ostensibly for health reasons — the Vatican still insisted that it had not received any firm complaints against the bishop until the following year, despite considerable reporting appearing to show the contrary.
Francis went further than just accepting Zanchetta’s resignation for “health reasons,” though, creating a sinecure position for him in the curia, and giving him a home in the Vatican hotel where the pope himself lives.