What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

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There are few relationships in the world of mainstream religion that are more private, and often mysterious, than the bonds between a priest and a penitent who comes to Confession.

This is especially true when the priest hears the same person’s Confessions over and over for years — even taking on the role of people a believer’s “spiritual father” and guide in life.

So what happens when a priest becomes a bishop? Bishops, cardinals and even popes need to go to Confession and some may even retain ties with their “spiritual fathers” as they climb the ecclesiastical ladder.

Why do I bring this up?

I do so because of a fine detail way down in an Associated Press report that — for a moment, forget teens in MAGA hats and Twitter storms by journalists — may turn out to be a crucial turning point in the complicated story of Pope Francis and wayward bishops involved, in various ways, with sexual abuse.

We will get to the Confessional in a moment. Here is the long, but crucial AP overture:

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 a new No. 2 position in one of the Vatican's most sensitive offices, has raised questions again about whether Francis turned a blind eye to the misconduct of his allies or dismissed allegations against them as ideological attacks.

Yes, “naked selfies” in a Vatican story. Were these photos sent to others or kept for — oh well, whatever, never mind.

The Associated Press report is not the first sign, of course, that there are fires burning in Argentina and Rome. For an earlier look at crucial pieces of this particular picture, see the Jan. 6 headline at Crux: “Pope risks rare double ‘own goal’ in case of Argentine bishop.”

However, Manzano is not just another source — he is, as AP noted, “Zanchetta's onetime vicar general, or top deputy.” And the framework for this interview is ultra-clear and specific:

In an interview with AP in the pews of his St. Cayetano parish in Oran, Manzano said he was one of the 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."

But here is the detail that jumped out at me.

An aide close to Zanchetta would not, of course, serve as his confessor. However, it’s highly likely that this aide would know the identity of his boss’ confessor or spiritual father.

The AP lede noted that Zanchetta was “close” to Pope Francis. In terms of spiritual disciplines, that would be a massive understatement. Read on:

Francis had named Zanchetta to Oran, a humble city some 1,650 kilometers (1,025 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires in Salta province, 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, which the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio headed for two successive terms, from 2005-2011.

And by all indications, they were close. Manzano said Bergoglio had been Zanchetta's confessor and treated him as a "spiritual son."

All of which could explain why Francis named him to Oran despite complaints about alleged abuses of power when Zanchetta was in charge of economic affairs in his home diocese of Quilmes.

Cardinal Bergoglio was this priest’s spiritual father? Is that relationship still intact?

I have a question for Catholic readers, especially anyone with canon law experience: Everyone knows that priests cannot discuss what they hear in Confession. But would the spiritual father, in such a case, be free to acknowledge that Zanchetta is one of this spiritual children? Could the pope answer questions about when this unique and sacred relationship began and when — if this is the case — it ended?

Journalists often ask questions that echo the famous Watergate equation: What did the president know and when did he know it?

In this case, Pope Francis may not be able to answer either of these questions. How does one testify about the sins — confessed sins or secret sins — of a spiritual son?

This long story rounds up lots of crucial information. Try to count the mysteries contained in this summary material about the state of things right now:

Zanchetta largely disappeared from public view until the Vatican, in an official announcement Dec. 19, 2017, said Francis had named him to the new position of "assessor" in APSA, a key administrative department which manages the Holy See's real estate and financial holdings. While the Vatican's annual yearbook lists Zanchetta hierarchically as the top deputy to the APSA president, his exact duties were never clear since the job didn't previously exist.

Zanchetta has not publicly responded to the allegations against him. The Vatican has not provided information when asked, other than to say he is not working while the investigation takes its course. …

While the Zanchetta case has been cloaked in secrecy, Manzano agreed to speak on-record to AP and a journalist from The Tribune daily of Salta. He sat for an on-camera interview and followed up with an email to explain his own actions and the concerns that sparked them. …

Manzano defended Francis' handling of the case, saying the pope himself should be considered a victim of Zanchetta's "manipulation."

Stay tuned? To say the least. And watch for coverage in elite media on this side of the Atlantic.

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