A reform-minded Roman Catholic bishop is caught in a compromising video with a young man.
In a heavily Catholic country, that ought to be scandal enough. But in Argentina, a nation struggling to escape a demoralizing legacy of corruption, economic catastrophe and brutality, the mystery seems to be: Who orchestrated the filming of the bishop with his male consort, and why?
Church officials and others hint at a conspiracy in a backward northern province that harks back to an uncomfortable era of political mafias and secret police.
The cleric, Bishop Juan Carlos Maccarone, resigned Aug. 18 as prelate of impoverished Santiago del Estero shortly after the video surfaced showing the 64-year-old bishop cavorting in his cassock with a mostly naked 23-year-old part-time cabbie, cellular phone salesman and money changer.
No one, including Maccarone, has questioned the authenticity of the 15-minute clip, which his partner apparently shot surreptitiously at the bishop's residence.
The bishop's resignation reportedly was quietly accepted by Pope Benedict XVI during World Youth Day celebrations in his native Germany.
The overall depiction of Maccarone as a victim, despite his apparent transgression of church teachings on celibacy and homosexuality, has been widely divergent from the critical U.S. press coverage of priests accused of sexually predatory behavior. However, Maccarone's clandestine encounters apparently involved a consenting adult, not hapless minors.
Public discussions have centered on the hints of a shadowy back story.
That someone would want to demolish the reputation of an urbane and respected progressive leader known as a key reformer in Argentina's political backwaters does not exactly stretch the credulity of those familiar with the former power structure in Santiago del Estero, whose capital is about 600 miles northwest of Buenos Aires.
"We reject and repudiate this mafia-like assault on Maccarone," said Nora Loto, a human rights activist in Santiago del Estero, where supporters have staged marches in solidarity with the departed bishop. "The people behind this are the same ones who have committed so many crimes in this province, but unfortunately continue to act with impunity."
The bishop has declared in a letter to his peers that he was undermined by a "project of extortion" that took advantage of his "goodwill."
Father Guillermo Marco, a spokesman for Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, suggested in a radio interview that the case smacked of a political vendetta.
Ordained in 1968, Maccarone was a well-known theologian and participant in a church-sponsored dialogue committee that sought to ease the fallout from the economic crisis that engulfed Argentina in 2001-02. The bespectacled, heavyset cleric frequently visited the capital, where his admirers are said to have included the Argentine president, Nestor Kirchner, who has been at odds with the church hierarchy here.
Kirchner, whose government faces crucial midterm elections next month, has portrayed his administration as a departure from the often brutal and corruption-ridden governments of Argentina's recent past.
For decades, Carlos Arturo Juarez, an old-school political caudillo, or strongman, ran Santiago del Estero according to his whims. Security was enforced by a police force more loyal to Juarez than to norms of law and order. By most accounts, the unit known as D2 -- the Information Directorate -- was especially diligent at eliminating any threats to Juarez's hegemony.
Maccarone's predecessor as bishop, Gerardo Sueldo, also a fierce critic of the entrenched provincial regime, perished in a mysterious 1998 auto crash in which his car reportedly ran into a horse, though the animal's carcass never was found. The caudillo's regime crumbled after high-level provincial authorities were linked to the sensational slayings in 2003 of two women.
Last year, federal authorities installed a trustee leadership in a victory for the nation's modernizing president, Kirchner. Maccarone backed the move.
Pablo Lanusse, the former federal trustee for Santiago del Estero, told reporters that Maccarone was "the victim of a sinister figure" in the province, a clear reference to Juarez, the ex-political boss, now 88 and freed from house arrest. "His resignation," Lanusse said of the bishop, "may mean some relief for criminals who attacked him so much, because his presence and ministry irritated them."
For his part, the young man in the video, Alfredo Serrano, has insisted in interviews here that he is not a hustler and that no one paid him for the tape, contrary to published reports that more than $30,000 may have changed hands.
Instead, Serrano said he acted out of anger over the bishop's failure to pony up promised aid for his struggling family, which has been on the financial skids since the death 15 years ago of Serrano's father, a former low-level government worker. At several points last year, Serrano's mother chained herself to the railings at the governor's palace demanding that she or her son inherit her husband's former job, as was the custom in the patronage-heavy province.
But in a country where conspiracy theories are readily embraced, many refuse to believe that the high school dropout from the back streets could have devised a scheme that has reverberated from Buenos Aires to the Vatican.
"There is no way this occurred casually," said Loto, the activist in Santiago del Estero. "If it happened to a person so loved, respected and as prestigious as the bishop, then it could happen to any of us.... We are all on alert."
Times researcher Andres D'Alessandro contributed to this report.