ORÁN, Argentina (ChurchMilitant.com) - On Thursday, Argentine authorities raided the officies of the diocese of Orán, part of their investigation into fraud committed during Bp. Gustavo Zanchetta's 2013–2017 rule.
Local media report that during the secret raid, officials with Orán's municipal Economic Crime Unit left the offices with multiple diocesan files.
A Pope Francis protégé, Zanchetta faces charges of financial misconduct and defrauding the state. He is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government for restoration of his rectory, as well as for a series of lectures at Orán's seminary that he never gave.
The bishop is also accused of mismanaging parishioner donations, and of failing to report financial transactions, including an off-the-books sale of a diocesan building for $800,000.
In addition to accusations of financial corruption, Zanchetta is facing allegations of sexual misconduct.
In June, he was criminally charged with "aggravated continuous sexual abuse" after two former seminarians accused the former bishop of sexual wrongdoing; the one-time bishop of Orán faces from three to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Zanchetta's troubles first erupted in September 2015, when Orán Chancellor Secretary Luis Amancio Díaz discovered pornographic images on the bishop's phone.
The pictures included depictions of young men engaging in sex, as well as images of Zanchetta masturbating; the photos were leaked to third parties via social media messaging service WhatsApp.
In 2016, Fr. Juan José Manzano, joined two other Orán vicars general and two diocesan monsignors to issue a formal complaint to Abp. Emile Paul Tscherrig, then papal nuncio to Argentina.
According to their accusations, Zanchetta would "watch seminarians in their rooms at night with a flashlight, ask for massages, go into their rooms and sit on their beds, encourage them to drink alcoholic beverages, and had certain preferences for those who were more graceful [looking]."
Since 2016, more than 20 seminarians have confirmed the accusations.
By 2017, rumors were swirling in the Argentine press that the Orán prelate had paid off multiple whistleblowers who reported him to Ap. Tscherrig. Press reports suggested that Zanchetta misappropriated diocesan funds to buy the silence of several young seminarians he allegedly subjected to "masturbation, groping and psychological pressure."
In July 2017, Zanchetta resigned as head of the diocese of Orán, citing health reasons; he later spent several months in Spain, allegedly receiving psychological treatment.
In December 2017, Pope Francis created a new position for Zanchetta, appointing him Councilor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) — the Vatican treasury's second-in-command.
In Argentina, pressure continued to mount against Zanchetta, and on January 4, 2019, the Vatican suspended him from his APSA position, acknowledging he was under investigation.
The scandal deepened on January 20, when the Associated Press (AP) published a bombshell exposé showing that the Vatican had known of the bishop's predatory behavior for years.
According to the AP report, Fr. Manzano revealed that he had first reported Zanchetta's sexual improprieties to the Vatican in 2015, and again in 2017.
"In 2015, we just sent a 'digital support' with selfie photos of the previous bishop [Zanchetta] in obscene or out of place behavior that seemed inappropriate and dangerous," Manzano said. "It was an alarm that we made to the Holy See via some friendly bishops."
"The nunciature didn't intervene directly," he continued, "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."
Manzano's testimony rocked the Holy See, as it discredited Vatican statements that Francis had learned of the allegations against Zanchetta only in the preceding few months — well after he installed his old friend as APSA councilor.
The timing of the report proved especially damaging, coming one month before the bishops' February 21–24 "sex abuse synod" in Rome. Manzano's revelations, observers argued, were further confirmation that Francis' pledge of "zero tolerance" on clerical sex abuse is empty.
Throughout 2019, the Zanchetta case has provoked additional controversy.
As officials in Argentina have tightened the screws on Zanchetta, officials inside the Vatican have interceded on his behalf.
In a June 3 letter to Argentine authorities, for example, Secretariat of State official Abp. Edgar Peña Parra — like Zanchetta, an accused predator of seminarians — declared that the former Orán bishop remains "employed by the Vatican" and must be allowed "to continue his daily work" in Rome.
Against the protests of the judicial prosecutor, a friendly judge allowed Zanchetta to leave Argentina temporarily. The bishop spent 45 days at the Vatican, then returned to Orán for a court appearance on Aug. 8. Later, the same judge returned Zanchetta's passport, allowing the bishop to travel freely to Rome.
In May, Pope Francis announced he would convene a Vatican tribunal to adjudicate the Zanchetta case. Reportedly, Zanchetta's canonical trial is nearing its end, but the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith is waiting until Argentina's criminal investigation is complete to announce its decision.