Associate of Pope Francis Found Guilty of Sexual Abuse in Argentina

Wall Street Journal [New York NY]

March 4, 2022

By Silvina Frydlewsky and Francis X. Rocca

Allegations over Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta’s conduct raised questions over pope’s handling of abuse cases

Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, a longtime associate of Pope Francis, was convicted by an Argentine court Friday of sexually assaulting young men in a case that has raised questions about the pope’s handling of sexual abuse at the highest level of the Catholic hierarchy.

A court in Orán, located in Argentina’s northern province of Salta, where Bishop Zanchetta served from 2013 to 2017, sentenced him to four years and six months in prison for the assault on two former seminarians there.

The bishop’s lawyer, Javier Belda, said he would appeal.

Several men said they communicated their accusations to the Vatican before the pope assigned Bishop Zanchetta to a high post there in 2017. Bishop Zanchetta remained in his Vatican post for more than two years after the accusations became public. In 2019, he was tried by the Vatican’s doctrinal office on unspecified accusations.

Prosecutors in Argentina said they sought documentation from the bishop’s Vatican trial. But the results were never made public, and prosecutors said the Vatican didn’t provide the documentation.

The Vatican didn’t respond to a request for comment about the case and the verdict.

“This is a stunning ruling from the pope’s homeland. It’s a sign that even where the Catholic Church wields power, civil societies increasingly will not tolerate sexual abuse of young adults by powerful figures, even if the accused is a Catholic bishop, and even if that bishop is supported by Pope Francis himself,” said Anne Barrett Doyle of, which tracks abuse cases around the world.

In a small courtroom in Orán, a three-judge panel delivered the sentence. Bishop Zanchetta, wearing a dark suit, clerical collar and mask, mostly looked down as the verdict was read.

On Friday, relatives and friends of the seminarians cried outside the courthouse after the verdict was announced. Some said they were angry that the bishop didn’t receive a tougher sentence.

“We asked for eight years. This isn’t enough,” one woman at the court told local reporters, according to a video published by El Tribuno newspaper.

Another woman at the court said that Bishop Zanchetta’s victims had been emotionally damaged by their experience. “They don’t have work…Their life is one of trauma,” she said. The two women didn’t identify themselves.

Carlos Lombardi, an Argentine lawyer who works with victims of sexual abuse in the country’s Catholic Church, called Bishop Zanchetta’s conviction a blow to Pope Francis, raising doubts about the church’s commitment to tackling the crisis.

“They don’t protect the rights of the victims,” said Mr. Lombardi, who wasn’t involved in Bishop Zanchetta’s case. “They cover up for the priests.”

Before he was elected pope, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as president of the Argentine bishops conference while Father Gustavo Zanchetta served as the body’s general secretary near Buenos Aires.

He was one of the first bishops appointed by Pope Francis, shortly after the latter’s election in 2013, and assigned to Orán, a city of 350,000 in a sprawling province that features highland wineries and posh resorts as well as destitute indigenous communities and drug smuggling.

In December 2017, Pope Francis appointed the bishop to a senior position in the Vatican office that manages a large part of the Holy See’s real-estate holdings and financial investment.

In late December 2018, El Tribuno, a local newspaper in Salta, reported that three priests had accused Bishop Zanchetta of sexual abuse and economic malfeasance, bringing their allegations to the Vatican’s envoy in Buenos Aires in 2016. The report suggested that the pope could have known of the accusations before he brought the bishop to Rome.

The Vatican spokesman said at the time that no accusations of sexual abuse had emerged until autumn 2018. He said the bishop had resigned from his diocese in 2017 because of “very tense relations” with the priests under his authority there.

“There were accusations of authoritarianism against him, but no accusations of sexual abuse,” said the Vatican spokesman, who added that the pope gave the bishop his job at the Vatican in recognition of his “administrative management ability.”

Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, in a dark jacket, was convicted on sexual-abuse charges Friday in Argentina. He was one of the first bishops Pope Francis appointed. PHOTO: GASTON INDA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, in a dark jacket, was convicted on sexual-abuse charges Friday in Argentina. He was one of the first bishops Pope Francis appointed. PHOTO: GASTON INDA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

When he resigned in 2017, before the allegations against him became public, Bishop Zanchetta was 53 years old, more than 20 years short of the standard retirement age for bishops. He cited unspecified health reasons in a public statement.

In May 2019, Pope Francis revealed in an interview with Mexican television that Bishop Zanchetta was being tried by the Vatican’s doctrinal office.

The pope said that he had known before the bishop resigned about accusations that he had kept pornographic images on his cellphone, but he said that the bishop had “defended himself well,” claiming his phone had been hacked.

The pope said the priests had accused the bishop of “abuse of power,” but the pope didn’t specify whether the alleged abuse had a sexual element.

“Certainly, he had a way of treating people that was, according to some, despotic, authoritarian,” the pope said.

He also discussed Bishop Zanchetta’s economic management in Orán. “Economically he was messy, but he did not manage the economic matters he handled badly. He was messy but he has vision,” the pope said.

Bishop Zanchetta remained in office until 2021 and is now listed in the official Vatican directory as a “former assessor.” The Vatican spokesman didn’t respond to a question about the bishop’s reason for leaving office.

—Ryan Dube and Paulo Trevisani contributed to this article.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at