ORAN, Argentina – The Vatican received information in 2015 and 2017 that an Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis had taken naked selfies, exhibited "obscene" behavior and had been accused of misconduct with seminarians, his former vicar general told the Associated Press, undermining Vatican claims that allegations of sexual abuse were only made a few months ago.
Francis accepted Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta's resignation in August 2017 after priests in the remote northern Argentine diocese of Oran complained about his authoritarian rule and a former vicar, seminary rector and another prelate provided reports to the Vatican alleging abuses of power, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of adult seminarians, said the former vicar, the Rev. Juan Jose Manzano.
The scandal over Zanchetta, 54, is the latest to implicate Francis as he and the Catholic hierarchy as a whole face an unprecedented crisis of confidence over their mishandling of cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors and misconduct with adults. Francis has summoned church leaders to a summit next month to chart the course forward for the universal church, but his own actions in individual cases are increasingly in the spotlight.
The pope's decision to allow Zanchetta to resign quietly, and then promote him to the No. 2 position in one of the Vatican's most sensitive offices, has raised questions again about whether Francis turned a blind eye to misconduct of his allies and dismissed allegations against them as ideological attacks.
Manzano, Oran's vicar general under Zanchetta who is now a parish priest, said he was one of the diocesan officials who raised the alarm about his boss in 2015 and sent the digital selfies to the Vatican.
In an interview with AP in the pews of his St. Cayetano parish in Oran, Manzano said he was one of three current and former diocesan officials who made a second complaint to the Vatican's embassy in Buenos Aires in May or June of 2017 "when the situation was much more serious, not just because there had been a question about sexual abuses, but because the diocese was increasingly heading into the abyss."
"In 2015, we just sent a 'digital support' with selfie photos of the previous bishop in obscene or out of place behavior that seemed inappropriate and dangerous," he told AP in a follow-up e-mail. "It was an alarm that we made to the Holy See via some friendly bishops. … 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."
Francis had named Zanchetta to Oran in 2013 in one of his first Argentine bishop appointments as pope. He knew Zanchetta well; Zanchetta had been the executive undersecretary of the Argentine bishops conference from 2005-2011.
Zanchetta has not publicly responded to the allegations.
Manzano defended Francis' handling of the case, saying the pope himself should be considered a victim of Zanchetta's "manipulation."