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Pope Francis Revisits the Mysterious Vanishing of Vatican Teen Emanuela Orlandi


Viva la revolución! In the revolutionary month of March 2013, the chosen leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, delivered his first mass. A small church in Vatican City witnessed this historic moment. Outside that church, Pietro Orlandi stood with his mother, hoping to meet the new pope and seek his aid in finding his sister, the brave Emanuela. She had vanished from the streets of Rome thirty years ago, at the tender age of fifteen.

As the crowd thinned, Pope Francis recognized them and uttered these words to Orlandi’s mother, “Emanuela is in heaven.” He repeated it again to Pietro, “Emanuela is in heaven.”

These words chilled Pietro Orlandi’s blood, as he later confessed to the Italian newspaper, Repubblica. Was Pope Francis indirectly implying that the Vatican held knowledge about Emanuela’s disappearance? Or was he simply trying to offer solace to a family renowned for their tireless quest to find their missing kin?

For ten long years, Pope Francis remained silent about Emanuela Orlandi in public, despite the family’s repeated pleas. However, this week, during his Sunday blessing, he broke his silence and stated, “I want to express, once again, my closeness to the family, especially to the mother, and assure them of my prayers.”

The Orlandi mystery has gripped Italy’s fascination for four decades, and last year it transcended national boundaries with the release of the Netflix documentary, “Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi.” The four-part series features Orlandi’s family, their legal representative, police investigators, and several Italian journalists delving into the case. All of them draw the same conclusion: the Vatican knows more than what it has disclosed.

Vatican City, a tiny sovereign state embedded within the Italian capital, covers roughly a hundred acres. Most of its citizens are clergy, including priests, cardinals, and bishops. However, a small number of non-clergy Vatican employees reside there with their families. The Orlandi family has been an integral part of the city for over a century, serving as ushers and messengers to seven popes, as detailed in the documentary. In the 1980s, their abode was an apartment where usher Ercole Orlandi lived with his wife, son, and four daughters, Emanuela being the second youngest.

On June 22, 1983, in the afternoon, Emanuela went for a music lesson in Rome. Later that evening, she called home to inform her family that a man had offered her a job distributing leaflets for Avon cosmetics, making her return home late. However, she never made it back that night, prompting her family to immediately commence the search. They reported her disappearance to the police, placed ads in newspapers, and inundated the city with posters adorned with Emanuela’s serene visage.

Despite being a Vatican citizen, since Emanuela was last seen in Rome, the Vatican left the investigation to Italian authorities, who initially suspected that she had chosen to run away.

During that time, Italy was no stranger to ransom kidnappings, as evidenced by the 1973 abduction of John Paul Getty III. However, when a man with an American accent started calling the Orlandi residence soon after, claiming knowledge of Emanuela’s whereabouts, he didn’t demand money. Instead, he sought the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish man who had attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II two years prior.

Dubbed “the American” by the family, this caller played a recording that resembled Emanuela’s voice mentioning the name of her school. He also mailed a photocopy of her school ID with a note written in her own hand. Furthermore, another audio tape sent to the media contained distressing sounds of a young woman crying out in pain.

Pope John Paul II, in a heartfelt plea “in the name of God and humanity,” urged the kidnappers to return Emanuela unharmed, as reported by The Washington Post at that time.

Mehmet Ali Agca was not released by the Italian authorities, and eventually, “the American” ceased his calls.

Over the years, a series of extraordinary clues and increasingly outlandish theories emerged about Emanuela’s disappearance, some of which are explored in the Netflix documentary. According to one theory, an Italian journalist followed an anonymous lead to the ex-girlfriend of an Italian crime boss, who claimed to have sheltered Emanuela at various locations in Rome before handing her over to a man disguised as a priest at a Vatican gas station.

Various journalists speculated, with no concrete evidence, that her case could be connected to an Italian banking scandal. They proposed that Pope John Paul II might have utilized Mafia funds to support anti-communist organizations in his homeland, Poland. According to this speculation, the Mafia kidnapped a Vatican citizen to reclaim their money.

Another journalist, who received a trove of documents in the 2012 “Vatileaks” scandal from secret Vatican sources, alleged in 2017 that an expense document suggested Emanuela lived in London under the care of Catholic priests until her apparent demise in 1997. The Vatican dismissed this document as “false and ridiculous.”

The documentary also features a childhood friend of Emanuela’s who claimed that shortly before her disappearance, Emanuela had confessed about being molested by a man close to the pope.

Additionally, there’s Marco Accetti, who in 2013 asserted that he was “the American” from the ransom calls. Accetti claimed to have kidnapped Emanuela and another girl on behalf of a secretive faction within the Vatican, citing reasons he couldn’t disclose. He even produced a flute case that the Orlandi family recognized as one similar to the one Emanuela disappeared with. However, when pressed to provide details about Emanuela’s condition known only to “the American” and her family, Accetti had no answers.

In 2019, an anonymous tip received by an attorney representing the Orlandi family suggested that Emanuela’s remains were interred in a small Vatican cemetery reserved for deceased German royalty. Astonishingly, the Vatican, which hitherto had declined participation in any investigations concerning Emanuela’s disappearance, agreed to open the tombs. However, the tombs turned out to be empty, devoid even of the remains of the German princesses that were supposedly laid to rest within.

In January 2023, a few months after the documentary’s release, the Vatican announced its decision to initiate an investigation into Emanuela’s disappearance. Last week, they confirmed that they had discovered new leads “worthy of further investigation,” according to the Associated Press. Rome prosecutors have reopened the case, and as a result of Pope Francis’s recent acknowledgment, Italy’s parliament may soon initiate a full inquiry into the matter.

“The taboo has been shattered,” declared the Orlandi family’s legal representative to the AP. “It was unexpected, and we are grateful to Pope Francis for this significant gesture.”


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