VATICAN CITY (VATICAN CITY)
Religion Unplugged [New York, NY]
June 20, 2023
By Clemente Lisi
It was a sweltering June day in 1983 when a teenager named Emanuela Orlandi left her home to attend a nearby music school and later meet up with some friends in a small square not far from the Vatican walls.
But Orlandi never showed up. What followed has been 40 years of mystery, international intrigue and conspiracy theories that have captivated Rome, all of Italy and the world.
Orlandi was 15 at the time and lived with her family in Vatican City. Her disappearance sparked a series of investigations and unanswered questions that continue to baffle investigators and the public alike. Indeed, 40 years later, the Orlandi case remains both perplexing and a long-standing mystery.
“I’ve always said that there is some responsibility on the part of the Vatican,” said Pietro Orlandi, who has made it his mission to find those who kidnapped his younger sister.
Orlandi said he believes the last three pontiffs — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — “know what happened” to his sister.
Several theories emerge
On June 22, 1983, Orlandi left her family’s apartment to attend a music lesson in Rome but never returned. Her disappearance immediately garnered widespread attention due to her ties to the Vatican, as her father was a lay employee of the Holy See. Despite intense efforts by Italian law enforcement officials and her family to find her, Emanuela’s fate remained unknown.
In the four decades that followed, numerous theories emerged, creating a complex web of speculation. Some claimed Emanuela was kidnapped as part of a plot to secure the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981.
Others have suggested involvement by the KGB, members of the Italian and Vatican intelligence services, secret societies and even high-ranking church officials. Following his release from prison in 2010, Agca said the Vatican had kept Orlandi captive and alleged that she was living in Central Europe as a nun.
However, no concrete evidence supporting any of these theories has ever really surfaced. Over the years, the case took several twists and turns. In 1997, an anonymous caller claimed that Emanuela’s remains were buried in the tomb of Enrico De Pedis, a notorious Roman mobster, in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare near the music school the teen was supposed to attend the day of her disappearance.
The investigation led to the exhumation of De Pedis’ tomb in 2012, but it only revealed his remains, further deepening the mystery. De Pedis was tied to the Magliana Gang, a criminal organization in Rome during the 1970s and ‘80s. Some theories claim members of this gang may have been involved in Orlandi’s disappearance, possibly for ransom.
Six years later, a new lead emerged when human bones were discovered during renovations at the Vatican’s embassy in Rome. Initial speculation suggested a potential connection to Emanuela’s disappearance. However, subsequent DNA tests revealed that the remains were not hers but belonged to a middle-aged woman who likely died during the 1800s.
Exhuming of bodies
There have been renewed efforts to solve the case. In 2019, two tombs were opened in the Teutonic Cemetery, a burial ground within Vatican City, as part of a new investigation.
One tomb belonged to Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe, a German noblewoman who died in 1836, while the other was believed to contain the remains of two princesses who were members of the same German family. Once again, no breakthroughs were made in connecting these tombs to Emanuela’s disappearance.
The Vatican opened an investigation into the case this past January on orders from Pope Francis. Holy See investigators met with Pietro Orlandi recently to discuss the case. The probe came on the heels of a 2022 Netflix documentary called “Vatican Girl.” The four-part series is part crime drama, part Dan Brown novel.
In “Vatican Girl,” the theory that the Holy See could be involved in Orlandi’s disappearance is explored in great detail. It had been Father Gabriele Amorth, an 85-year-old priest and famed Vatican exorcist, who in 2012 had said Orlandi was kidnapped by a member of the Vatican police for sex parties. He added that Orlandi was later murdered.
Possible Vatican connection
Italian investigative reporter Tommaso Nelli penned a book called “Act of Grief” in 2016, in which he reveals that days before she went missing, Orlandi told a friend she had been sexually harassed in the Vatican gardens by a high-ranking cleric.
“This episode left Emanuela deeply shaken,” Nelli told Euronews. “We must not get sucked up into the big conspiracy theories. They all proved baseless so far. We should start from the victim, looking at her social circles and the world she lived in.”
In 2017, Italian reporter Emiliano Fittipaldi published an alleged leaked Vatican document that listed a series of expenses the Holy See might have sustained between 1983 and 1997 to hide and transfer Orlandi to various locations, including two hostels for women in London.
The document’s authenticity could not be proven, and the Vatican dismissed it as “false and ridiculous.”
Orlandi family lawyers have publicly named several high-ranking Vatican officials who could know what happened to Orlandi. Those with potential knowledge of her disappearance, according to the Orlandi family, include Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s former secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Carlo Maria Vigano, archbishop-turned-whistleblower who had accused Pope Francis of knowing about the sexual escapades of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; and Georg Ganswein, Pope Benedict XVI’s personal secretary.
“The search for the truth is an act of courage, and the Holy Father has shown that he wants to pursue this path with force,” said Orlandi family lawyer Laura Sgro’.
For now, what happened to Orlandi remains a haunting enigma. The case continues to capture the imagination of those seeking justice and closure — yet another reminder of the complexities and challenges involved in solving long-standing mysteries.
“Some scenarios have deliberately never been explored,” Orlandi said. “I hope this case will finally mean more collaboration between Vatican and Italian authorities.”