The Vatican has been accused of harbouring a bishop wanted for alleged sex abuse offences, as Pope Francis railed against the evils of sexual exploitation on a visit to Thailand.
Prosecutors in Argentina have issued an international arrest warrant for Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who is accused of sexually abusing young trainee priests, known as seminarians. He denies the charges.
Bishop Zanchetta, 55, who is close to his fellow Argentine Pope Francis, lives in the Vatican.
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Not only that, he reportedly resides in Casa Santa Marta, an accommodation block in the shadow of St Peter’s Basilica where Francis has lived ever since his election six years ago.
Argentinian prosecutors have complained that the bishop has failed to respond to repeated emails and telephone calls about the abuse allegations, which were made last year by two young seminarians. The trainee priests also accused him of mismanagement of the diocese’s finances and abuse of power.
If convicted, the bishop would face up to 10 years in prison, but there is no extradition treaty between Argentina and the Vatican and for now he seems to be safely ensconced in Rome.
The stand-off emerged as Pope Francis made an impassioned speech in Bangkok on behalf of victims of sex trafficking, prompting accusations of a double standard in the Catholic Church’s stance on sex crimes.
“Despite being suspended from ministry, the Vatican has argued that Zanchetta’s ‘daily work’ requires him to be in Rome instead of facing trial in Argentina. This decision is at best questionable and at worst a Vatican-sponsored opportunity for Zanchetta to flee from justice,” said Zach Hiner, the executive director of victims’ pressure group SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“If Pope Francis was serious about his “all-out battle” against cases of clergy abuse, he would order Zanchetta to return to Argentina and face the allegations against him.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, of BishopAccountability.org, which documents the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, said: “It’s vital that Pope Francis ensures Zanchetta’s full cooperation with Argentine civil authorities. To do otherwise would put the Pope in violation of his own decree forbidding conduct by bishops that interferes with civil investigations.
“Francis must begin to set an example – especially because his protectiveness toward Zanchetta to date already raises disturbing questions about his commitment to ending complicity by Church officials.
“Francis should not have given Zanchetta safe harbour in the first place, given the bishop’s reported wrongdoing in Argentina.”
During an open air Mass in Bangkok on Thursday, he urged greater efforts in combating what he called the “humiliation” of women and children forced into prostitution.
Earlier, in a speech delivered at the office of the Thai prime minister, the Pope called for greater international commitment to protect women and children "who are violated and exposed to every form of exploitation, enslavement, violence and abuse."
In 2017, Zanchetta resigned as bishop of the city of Oran, in the north of Argentina, citing “health reasons”.
The Pope called him to Rome and gave him a job in Apsa, the Vatican agency that manages the Church’s huge property portfolio.
In January, he was suspended from that role with the Vatican acknowledging he was under investigation.
Argentinian prosecutors complain that they cannot get in touch with Zanchetta and that he refuses to respond to their communications.
The Vatican did not respond to questions about Zanchetta’s whereabouts or whether he intended to reply to prosecutors in Argentina.
In a Mexican television interview earlier this year, the Pope said he had asked Zanchetta about the accusations, which involved nude selfies on the bishop’s mobile phone.
Francis said he gave his friend the benefit of the doubt after he claimed his phone had been hacked.
A representative for the bishop in Rome insisted that Zanchetta had always cooperated with investigators.
"He is the first one to be interested in clarifying the truth, so that his reputation can be restored. For this reason he will continue to actively cooperate with the justice system," Javier Iniesta told Reuters.
Pope Francis has been accused of failing to act against the scourge of clerical sex abuse by campaign groups representing victims.
Scandals have erupted in Argentina and neighbouring Chile, as well as other countries such as Ireland, Australia and Germany.