Argentine archbishop—key figure in Zanchetta affair—convicted of gender violence against nuns

Catholic Culture - Trinity Communications [San Diego CA]

April 8, 2024

Archbishop Mario Cargnello of Salta, a city in northern Argentina, has been convicted of gender violence against Discalced Carmelite nuns, the Salta-based El Tribuno has reported.

The nuns had accused Archbishop Cargnello, who has governed the archdiocese since 1999, of harassment of a psychological, economic, and physical (though not sexual) nature. In 2020, he, along with his judicial vicar, attempted to wrestle away a camera from a nun as she was recording a meeting, in what El Tribuno described as the principal incident under review.

Archbishop Cargnello “presents indicators of rigid, structured thinking; therefore, when faced with situations and/or events that differ from his ideology or what he expects, he could react with anger or irritability, triggering intimidating behaviors,” according to a psychological report that was published with the court’s ruling. Judge Carolina Cáceres Moreno ordered Archbishop Cargnello to undergo psychological treatment, as well as training in gender violence.

Also convicted were Bishop Martín de Elizalde, the retired bishop of Nueve de Julio, Argentina; Father Loyola Pinto y de Sancristóval, the judicial vicar; and Father Lucio Ajaya.

The judge also ordered Father Javier Belda Iniesta, Pope Francis’s delegate to resolve disputes between Archbishop Cargnello and the nuns, to convey news of the decision to Pope Francis.

Both Archbishop Cargnello and Father Belda Iniesta have played crucial—and opposing—roles in the events surrounding Bishop Gustavo Óscar Zanchetta, the former bishop of Orán (2013-17) and assessor of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See who was convicted in 2022 of sexually abusing seminarians.

In 2018, El Tribuno reported that Archbishop Cargnello—the local metropolitan archbishop, and himself a former Orán bishop (1994-98)—had sided with the whistleblower Orán priests who had accused Bishop Zanchetta financial mismanagement, abuse of power, and the sexual abuse of seminarians. Silvia Noviasky of El Tribuno described Archbishop Cargnello’s role in greater detail in a blockbuster 2019 article, on which Pope Francis shed light in an interview with a Mexican journalist.

Father Javier Belda Iniesta, on the other hand, is Bishop Zanchetta’s spokesman and canonical advocate. A Spanish diocesan priest and a prolific scholar, he worked as Dean of the Faculty of Human, Canonical, and Religious Sciences at the Catholic University of Murcia (Spain), as well as the international coordinator and fourth-ranking official at the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, following its refounding by Pope Francis.

In 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.

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 disputes between Archbishop Cargnello and the Discalced Carmelite nuns, 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, as Archbishop Cargnello provided crucial assistance to Zanchetta’s accusers, while Belda is Zanchetta’s canonical advocate.

In addition, Father Loyola Pinto y de Sancristóval—the Salta judicial vicar convicted of gender violence against the nuns—had advised one of Bishop Zanchetta’s accusers that the sexual abuse of seminarians by a bishop is indeed a canonical offense. (The seminarian said he had received contrary advice from Bishop Luis Antonio Scozzina, Zanchetta’s successor in Orán.)