Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, left, stands with his lawyer Enzo Gianotti after he was convicted and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for continued sexual abuse of two former seminarians in Oran, Argentina, Friday, March 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Javier Corbalan)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — An Argentine court on Friday sentenced a Roman Catholic bishop to 4 1/2 years in prison for sexual abuse of two former seminarians in a major blow to Pope Francis, who had defended Gustavo Zanchetta following initial allegations.

The prosecutors’ office in the northern province of Salta reported the conviction and sentence on its Twitter account and said he had been ordered arrested.

The conviction in the pope’s homeland hits at Francis’ personal credibility since he had initially rejected accusations against Zanchetta, the former bishop of Oran, and created a job for him at the Vatican that got him out of Argentina.

Francis has defended his handling of the case, insisting that Zanchetta “defended himself well” when confronted with the first allegations that he had pornographic images on his cellphone.

Francis also defended the decision to give him a job in one of the most sensitive Vatican offices, the treasury that manages the Holy See’s investments and assets, saying Zanchetta had been prescribed psychological retreats each month in Spain and it didn’t make sense for him to return to Argentina between each session.

Local authorities began to investigate after the allegations emerged publicly in early 2019, when the newspaper El Tribuno de Salta reported complaints about Zanchetta’s conduct as bishop in Oran, about 1,600 kilometers (900 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires.

Five priests made a formal accusation before church authorities against the bishop in 2016, accusing him of authoritarianism, financial mismanagement and sexual abuse at the Saint John XXIII Seminary.

Prosecutor María Soledad Filtrín Cuezzo told the court on Thursday that investigators had established the truthfulness of witnesses against the bishop, citing their internal logic, context and precise details.

Zanchetta had flown back to his home country from Rome to face the charges. He has denied the charges and said he is victim of revenge by priests in Oran with whom he had differences.

The pope had ordered a church trial into the case, though the results of that are not known.

Source: Associated Press