BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -A Catholic bishop accused of sexually abusing young men studying to be priests was found guilty by a court in northern Argentina on Friday, capping over a week of often graphic testimony in the latest criminal abuse case to hit the global Church.
The high-profile trial played out in the home country of Pope Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires and the first Latin American pontiff of the Church.
Gustavo Zanchetta, the former bishop of Oran in Argentina’s northern province of Salta, was convicted of sexually abusing two former seminarians, which prosecutors said in a statement was aggravated due to his status as a cleric.
The court handed down a prison sentence of 4 1/2 years to begin immediately.
Zanchetta had denied all charges in the criminal trial, as well as a separate Vatican canon law investigation, insisting he had “a good and healthy relationship” with all seminarians, according to summaries of the closed-door trial provided by the local judiciary.
“We’re going to appeal,” Zanchetta lawyer Javier Belda told Reuters in an email.
Summaries of testimony provided by the judiciary included witnesses describing unwanted touching and sexual advances by the bishop, as well as requests for massages and gifts he doled out to seminarians he was said to favor.
Other witnesses testified to the discovery of porn on the bishop’s phone as well as a history of visiting pornographic websites on a church computer he used.
Zanchetta often spoke about his close friendship with the pope, according to trial testimony.
Zanchetta had worked for the Church in Rome, tapped in 2017 to help lead the Vatican’s Administration of Patrimony of the Apostolic See, a financial and accounting office that also manages its properties in Italy. He was re-appointed to the job by the pope in 2020 despite an ongoing criminal investigation.
BishopAccountability.org, a U.S.-based abuse tracking group, hailed Zanchetta’s conviction in a statement on Friday.
“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,” said the group.
It also blasted the pontiff for what it described as his “disturbing” refusal to provide prosecutors with files from the Vatican’s own investigation into the case.
“Pope Francis should finally condemn the bishop’s crimes publicly and strip him of his title and privileges,” the statement said.
The Vatican did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Three priests first accused the Argentine bishop of sexually abusing seminarians, as well as abuse of power and financial mismanagement, in 2018, which they claimed took place at the Oran seminary the bishop founded a couple of years earlier.
A local prosecutor called for Zanchetta’s arrest the following year, but the case has dragged on amid legal delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Vatican’s investigation.
(Reporting by Agustin Giest in Buenos Aires; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)