ROME – July in Rome tends to be a slow time, and, given the heat wave that’s gripped Europe for the last few weeks, this has been an especially languid period. Today, however, Romans will perk up all across town, because this is the day two Vatican tombs will be opened in search of the remains of Emanuela Orlandi.
Orlandi was the 15-year-old daughter of a clerk in the Prefecture of the Papal Household, whose role was to deliver messages in the Apostolic Palace, when she disappeared in 1983. Today, she’s become more or less the Jimmy Hoffa of Italy.
Much as the labor leader’s fate has captivated generations of Americans ever since he vanished in 1975 – complete with alleged sightings hither and yon, fantastic rumored burial sites (famously including Giants Stadium), and conspiracy theories of every stripe – what happened to Orlandi is Rome’s favorite giallo, or mystery story.
Legions of Romans, who probably couldn’t name a single Vatican personality today other than Pope Francis himself, nevertheless can recite details of the legend surrounding Orlandi’s disappearance as if it happened yesterday. A quick Google search in Italian under “Emanuela Orlandi” returns 2.41 million results.
Over the last 35 years, virtually every possibility has been floated – that Orlandi was kidnapped by terrorists seeking the liberation of would-be papal assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca; she was taken by the Italian mob to exert leverage on the Vatican bank; she was swept into an underage sex ring inside the Vatican; that she actually ran away and made a life in France, or the States, or Sweden, or pretty much anyplace else imaginable.
Obeying the trajectory of all good gialli, periodically new twists pop up to sustain interest.
In 2001, the pastor of the Church of Pope Gregory VII near the Vatican announced that a small skull had been left in a confessional, stoking belief it may have been Orlandi’s (it wasn’t); in 2012, when the Preacher of the Papal Household, Capuchin Father Rainero Cantalamessa, told people in St. Peter’s Basilica on Good Friday, “Don’t carry your secret to the grave with you!”, the Italian press erupted with speculation he was talking about Orlandi (the Vatican said he wasn’t.)
Despite the public rhetoric then and now – Pope John Paul II, for example, made eight different appeals for her freedom at the time – many Italians, including members of Orlandi’s family, have always suspected that somebody in the Vatican knows far more than they’ve ever let on.
Things took yet another turn one year ago when Laura Sgrò, the lawyer representing the Orlandi family, received an anonymous letter with a picture of a tomb in the Campo Teutonico, a German cemetery inside the Vatican, with a note saying, “Look where the angel points.” The reference was apparently to a statue of an angel in the cemetery depicted with a scroll that reads, requiescat in pace.
Media reports in Italy claim that for years a person or persons unknown have been leaving fresh flowers on that tomb in the belief that Orlandi is buried there.
On June 27, the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, more or less the equivalent of a District Attorney, ordered two tombs located near the statue to be opened in an effort to determine if Orlandi’s remains are actually there. (In Italian jurisprudence, unlike in the U.S. a prosecutor can order wiretaps and the seizure of evidence; in America, a court order would be necessary.)
Today, lawyers for both the Orlandis and the Vatican will be present when the tombs are opened to document the procedures, along with Vatican technicians and the commander of the Vatican Gendarmes, Italian layman Domenico Gianni.
Pope Francis has met the Orlandi family and promised the Vatican’s cooperation in efforts to get to the truth. When the Promoter of Justice announced that the tombs on Vatican property would be opened, both Sgrò and Pietro Orlandi, Emanuela’s brother, who’s generally acted as the family’s spokesman, expressed gratitude to Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, for what they called his “courageous” act.
DNA testing will take a while, and it remains to be seen whether today’s tomb openings actually will shed any new light. In 2012 the crypt of a famed mobster was opened in a Roman basilica in hopes of finding Orlandi, but nothing resulted. Last year the discovery of human bones at the Vatican embassy to Italy raised fevered hopes, but in the end test results showed the remains to be at least 100 years old.
Perhaps today’s excavation will actually result in the discovery of Orlandi’s remains, though the odds would seem to be against it. Even if that happens, however, it would simply extend the giallo, since the questions then would be how they got there, who in the Vatican may have been involved, who else knew about it, etc.
That’s the essence, really, of a good mystery story. Any proposed ending is really just the beginning of a new chapter.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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