Mystery of missing girl comes back to haunt Vatican

This is the Holy See’s very own ‘cold case’, the one that refuses to go away. The discovery of bone fragments in the Vatican nunciature to Italy in Rome 10 days ago has prompted renewed speculation about the disappearance 35 years ago of 15-year-old Vatican citizen Emanuela Orlandi.

This is one of those never-ending, seemingly inexplicable Italian mysteries which, like the Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap, seems to run and run ad infinitum. But this is no theatrical entertainment. Rather, it concerns the disappearance of a girl who on a June day in 1983 left her family home in Vatican City to go to her flute lesson and never came back.

Emanuela’s disappearance, by turns and in different ways, has involved the Holy See, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, the Vatican Bank, the 1982 collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, the Roman criminal underworld, the Stasi, the East German secret police, and even Turkish gunman Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate John Paul II in St Peter’s Square in 1981. And those are only just a few of the people and organisations which feature in this puzzling story.

To go back to the beginning – on the afternoon of June 22, 1983, Emanuela, daughter of a Vatican functionary, left the family apartment in Vatican City to go to her flute lesson in a music school in Piazza di Sant’Apollinare, central Rome.

According to a number of witnesses, on her way to the lesson Emanuela was stopped by a man who offered her money to do some PR work for a cosmetics company during a forthcoming fashion show in Rome.

Immediately after her lesson, Emanuela rang home, telling her sister Natalina about the strange work offer and asking her what she should do. Her sister told her to agree to nothing but rather to wait until she got home and could talk to their parents about the alleged job offer. That was the last time that any member of the Orlandi family ever spoke to Emanuela. She has never been seen or heard since.

Emanuela remains one of the great ‘misteri’ (unresolved mysteries) of modern Italian history, to rank alongside the 1978 Red Brigade killing of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, or the 1980 Bologna train station bombing in which 85 people died, or the 1980 Ustica plane explosion in which “a stray missile” killed 81 people. Nor does the list end there.

The most recent return of this particular cold case was prompted by the news that the Holy See had reported to Italian authorities the discovery of bone fragments during renovation work at its Rome embassy to the Italian state. (As a sovereign state, the Vatican maintains an embassy in ‘foreign’, ie Italian territory).

No sooner had this news hit the airwaves and already there was speculation that the bones found under the embassy flooring might be those of Emanuela. When it then emerged that further bone fragments had been discovered, suggesting that more than one person had been buried in the embassy, the media promptly speculated that the other bones might belong to Mirella Gregori, another Roman teenager who has been missing since May 1983.

At first glance, this looks like a classic case of trigger-happy conspiracy theorists finding two and two and adding them up to make 22. As I write, the bones in question are being forensically examined but, as yet, there is no indication as to who was buried in the Vatican Embassy. Investigators, hoping to extract some DNA samples from the bone fragments, may be able to arrive at a positive identification over the next week but that is by no means certain.

Whatever way this one shakes down, it is not exactly comfortable news for the Holy See. If the bones were to be those of Emanuela, it would provoke the father and mother of a scandal, confirming the claims that the Vatican knows and has long known more about her disappearance than it cares to admit.

If, as frankly seems more probable at this stage, the bones are the remains of someone else, then another set of questions ask themselves. Who was buried there? When? And why, particularly if the bones turn out to date from recent times?

The fact that the Holy See is not insensitive to this issue was underlined last Friday by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Speaking on the margins of a Vatican press conference on an unrelated matter, Cardinal Parolin told reporters: “It wasn’t the Holy See which made the connection to Emanuela Orlandi. I don’t know who has linked this matter to the Orlandi case…”

Cardinal Parolin added that it was a matter of simple transparency that the Vatican immediately informed Italian police, asking for their expert help, saying the Vatican “has always done everything it can to discover the truth”.

Given that Emanuela’s father worked in the Vatican, there has always been a line of speculation which argues that she was kidnapped, abducted and presumably killed by figures in Rome’s criminal underworld, probably the infamous Banda della Magliana, in an action that was in some way linked to the Vatican Bank.

The Banda della Magliana, allegedly linked both to neo-fascist right-wing activists and Italian secret services, is believed to have lost money lodged in the Vatican Bank, the IOR.

The Vatican Bank had seemed like a safe place to lodge money – but that was without reckoning on the machinations of ‘God’s Banker’, Roberto Calvi, and of IOR’s governor, a certain US cardinal called Paul Marcinkus, the guy who used to say: “You can’t run the church on Hail Marys.”

The IOR was the main shareholder in Banco Ambrosiano and when it went down in a $1.3bn collapse in 1982, the IOR also lost money, including the ill-gotten gains of the ‘Magliana’ (perhaps the equivalent of €10m).

The conspiracy theory then suggests that in order to scare Cardinal Marcinkus and force the IOR to repay the monies ‘owed’, the banda kidnapped Emanuela. Next time, it will be you, Cardinal Marcinkus. That the Banda della Magliana was in some way linked to the Vatican seems to have been proved by the remarkable discovery in 2012 that one of its murdered godfathers, Enrico De Pedis, was found to have been buried in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare, in central Rome.

This is just one of the many conspiracy theories which have whirled and dervished around the Orlandi affair for the last 35 years. From the moment that her family put up missing posters all around Rome in the weeks after her disappearance, the case has prompted a bewildering variety of claims and counter-claims.

In the weeks after Emanuela’s disappearance, the Orlandi family received a number of phone calls in response to the posters which had given the family’s phone numbers. In particular, there were calls from different sources linking the schoolgirl’s kidnap to Mehmet Ali Agca – then in an Italian prison following his 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. The suggestion was that the Grey Wolves, the Turkish organisation of which Agca was a member, was involved in the kidnapping.

Even if Agca in 2010 confirmed this version to Pietro Orlandi, Emanuela’s brother, even telling him that she was still alive, the credibility of those claims was completely undermined when an ex-Stasi, agent, Gunter Bohnsack, said the Stasi had entirely invented the “Turkish connection” merely to distract attention from the involvement of Eastern Bloc secret services in Agca’s attempted killing of John Paul II. In short, the plot not so much thickens as becomes utterly opaque.

Pietro Orlandi remains convinced that the Vatican knows more about this tragic case than it has so far revealed. In the last week, he has said that “he who is silent, is an accomplice”, in a reference to both the church and to Pope Francis.

One final thought concerns the reflections of Andrea Purgatori, an investigative TV journalist who as a young reporter covered the Orlandi disappearance. He has said that his sources back in 1983 suggested that the kidnapping had gone wrong and that Emanuela had been killed almost immediately.

Which would suggest that the hoax phone calls, the proposed exchange of ‘prisoners’, the Grey Wolves speculation, the speculation that Emanuela had been drugged by criminals working for a paedophile ring and much, much else besides was merely the work of people, criminals and others, trying to exploit a particularly lurid bandwagon.

At this stage, we can come to only one conclusion. Emanuela may be alive or dead, we cannot know for certain. The story of her disappearance, however, has clearly not ended. In Italy, stories like this never seem to go away.

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