Argentine bishop says he’ll return to face sex allegations

Gustavo Zanchetta

FILE – In this Aug. 26, 2016 file photo, Gustavo Zanchetta, bishop of Oran, participates in negotiations with border workers, in Oran, Salta, Argentina. The canon law lawyer for Zanchetta issued a statement Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, announcing that the monsignor will return voluntarily to Argentina on Monday to respond to prosecutors’ accusations of sex abuse. (AP Photo/Javier Corbalan, File)

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — An Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis said Saturday he’ll return voluntarily to Argentina to respond to prosecutors’ accusations of sex abuse.

Javier Belda Iniesta, the canon law lawyer for Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta issued a statement that the monsignor would arrive in Argentina on Tuesday and would fully cooperate with authorities.

Zanchetta has been formally accused of “aggravated continuous sexual abuse” of two seminarians, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. He has denied the charges.

The Zanchetta case is particularly grave for Francis, given the pope was aware of allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior by his onetime protégé in 2015, two years before Zanchetta resigned as bishop of Oran.

Francis allowed him to step down in 2017 for “health reasons,” but then named him to a senior Vatican administration position a few months later.

Francis acknowledged in a TV interview earlier this year that he asked Zanchetta about the initial accusation, involving nude selfies on the bishop’s cellphone. The pope said he gave Zanchetta the benefit of the doubt after he claimed his phone had been hacked.

Belda Iniesta stressed that judges had rejected requests by Argentine prosecutor María Soledad Filtrín for an international arrest warrant.

He also insisted the bishop believes the prosecutor’s actions were aimed only at learning the truth, ”even when they could seem compulsive or repetitive without apparent motive.”

The Vatican insists the first accusation of actual sex abuse was only lodged against Zanchetta in late 2018. But The Associated Press and the newspaper Tribune of Salta have reported that documents and testimony from diocesan officials raised credible allegations of inappropriate sexual misconduct well before then.

Zanchetta is also facing a canonical trial. The allegations do not involve minors.

Argentine prosecutors said last week that an order for Zanchetta’s capture had been requested because the bishop did not answer repeated phone calls or emails to be notified of the legal process against him.

The attorney’s statement Saturday said the bishop has been at the “residence indicated to judicial authorities.” That appeared to confirm that Zanchetta has been lodging at the same Vatican hotel, the Santa Marta, at which the pope stays.

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