ROME – To judge by sensationalist newspaper headlines and breathless social media posts, one might assume that the open conflict in Catholicism unleashed by the death of Pope Benedict XVI and fanned by a series of tell-all revelations from his longtime aide, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, would be the talk of the town in Rome — which, after all, is where the drama is unfolding.

In reality, it’s just not so.

Walk into any Roman barbershop, restaurant or private home these days that’s more than a three-block radius away from St. Peter’s Square, and, to the extent anyone’s talking about a Vatican story, it isn’t Pope v. Pope, or Francis’s recent crackdown on his own Vicariate of Rome, or the Rupnik affair about a Jesuit artist accused of sexual abuse, or anything else.

Instead, the conversation in the streets once again is about Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of a Vatican family who disappeared in 1983, and whose fate remains the country’s most celebrated unresolved mystery.

A Vatican prosecutor has reopened an investigation into the Orlandi case, with the mandate to reexamine “all files, documents, reports, information and testimonies,” and to leave “no stone unturned.” The move comes in the wake of a popular four-part Netflix series on the Orlandi case called “Vatican Girl,” coupled with calls in the Italian parliament to open its own inquest.

While the Orlandi saga may be relatively unknown outside Italy, it’s almost impossible to overstate the fascination it still  exercises here a full four decades after the fact.  Among many examples of this popular obsession, here’s one from my personal experience.

Back in October, I spent 25 days in a local hospital recovering from a surgery. One of my fellow patients was a fifty-something wife and mother, a native Roman who’s seen five popes come and go, and a reasonably devout Catholic. Early on she learned what I do for a living, but didn’t make made much of it until the day before her operation, when she seemed haunted by a sense of unfinished business.

“There’s one question I’ve always wanted to ask,” she finally told me, speaking sottovoce and glancing around in conspiratorial fashion: “What do you think really happened to Emanuela?”

The fact she didn’t even feel the need to supply the girl’s last name spoke volumes.

Over the years, the Orlandi case has been linked in Italian speculation to pretty much every storyline imaginable, from Mehmet Ali Agca and the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II to the Roman mafia, the Masons, bankers and international finance, not to mention the clerical sexual abuse scandals.

To try to understand why this story resonates so much with ordinary Italians, I turned to Fabrizio Peronaci, a reporter who covers the Orlandi story for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most authoritative newspaper, and author of Il Crimine del Secolo (“Crime of the Century”), a 2021 book about the assassination attempt on John Paul, in which Orlandi is discussed at length.

Referring to the Orlandi case as “the mother of all mystery stories,” Peronaci pointed to three intersecting reasons why it retains such a hold on the Italian imagination.

  • Italians love a good giallo, meaning a mystery, and the Orlandi case is a perfect storm, with elements of political intrigue and espionage, the Vatican, high finance, the Masons, etc. – “It’s got all the ingredients of an updated Dan Brown, like a Dan Brown for our times,” Peronaci said.
  • The Orlandi case is also “where the great themes of recent history intersect, above all that phase of our country’s history characterized by deep shadows.” Peronaci was referring to a period in the 1970s and 80s in which Italy suffered a series of traumas still surrounded by question marks, from the assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 to the 1982 collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano.
  • At the heart of the Orlandi story is a young girl and her grieving family, in a culture in which children and family remain deeply rooted, sacrosanct values. “Everyone remembers this girl with the headband, and she’s generated a level of attention and empathy that has no media precedent,” Peronaci said. “The face of that girl still has power today.”

“Public opinion has made the case very visible,” Peronaci said, “and highlighted the power games that surround it.”

In terms of why he Vatican has decided to reopen the case now, Peronaci said he sees two factors at work.

“On the one hand, there’s a desire on the part of the church to give a strong signal of change and renewal,” he said. “The Orlandi case is a symbol to give to everyone a demonstration that the Holy See won’t tolerate the shadows and question marks from the Vatican bank era, from a dark and opaque time.”

In terms of that desire to signal change, Peronaci noted that news of the investigation came just days after the public row over Gänswein’s revelations began, which, to many Italians, is reminiscent of the bad old days of Vatican intrigue and power struggles.

Second, Peronaci said, the Vatican has also been forced to act by the findings of investigative journalists.

“This work has demonstrated that there are strong elements that have never been pursued, and you can’t just pretend they’re not there,” he said. “The people know it, and if you ignore it, they’ll have a negative judgment.”

“When too much comes to light, when something that was hidden for so long comes out, it’s impossible to go back and pretend nothing has happened,” he said. Among other things, he pointed to recent revelations that two other girls with Vatican ties claim to have been followed immediately prior to Orlandi’s disappearance, suggesting this wasn’t a random event but the product of careful advance planning.

Peronaci described himself as cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the investigation, with the proviso that “there has to be someone with the courage to present himself to the authorities, to the magistrates, and give testimony,” voicing the conviction that someone involved in the case knows far more than they’ve said.

Peronaci’s own theory as to what happened to Orlandi revolves around a set of personalities he calls “the ganglion,” literally referring to a loosely connected cluster of cells in an organism’s nervous system.

This metaphorical cluster, he believes, was composed of “lay criminals, clerics, members of the secret service, even Masons,” with the objective of pressuring John Paul II’s Vatican to moderate its strongly anti-Communist position and to recover money that had been directed toward Poland and the Solidarity movement. The kidnapping of Orlandi, he believes, was an effort to bring pressure to bear on John Paul II to change course.

Peronaci expressed confidence that the truth, sooner or later, will emerge.

“The people just won’t let this go,” he said — and at least in Italy, it’s hard to dispute his confidence.

We’ll see that determination on display again tomorrow, when Orlandi’s older brother Pietro, who’s dedicated his life to finding the truth about his sister, will be staging a sit-in near the Vatican to demand that it come clean. It’s one of two such protests he organizes every year on Jan. 14, Emanuela’s birthday, and June 22, the anniversary of her disappearance.

By the way, a flyer for the sit-in has a picture of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, with the phrase “silence has made them accomplices.”