ROME – In a recent phone call to an Italian friend, Pope Francis confided that he’d been unconscious when he arrived at Rome Gemelli’s Hospital in an ambulance on March 29, adding that had he got there only a few hours later, “I might not be talking to you.”

The pope spent three nights at the Gemelli to treat a bout of bronchitis, before returning to the Vatican for Palm Sunday.

Francis’s resilience during Holy Week suggested that whatever his difficulties had been, he’s bounced back admirably. That recovery may be just in time, because a new development Wednesday in the Vatican’s longest-running and most anguished mystery story poses an especially agonizing challenge for the pontiff.

On Wednesday, Pietro Orlandi and his lawyer, Laura Sgrò, had an eight-hour meeting with the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, meaning its top prosecutor, an Italian layman and lawyer named Alessandro Diddi. Orlandi is the brother of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old daughter of an employee of the Prefecture of the Papal Household whose mysterious disappearance in 1983 still remains a matter of intense public interest in Italy forty years later.

Recently a four-part Netflix series titled “Vatican Girl” generated new attention to the case, and in late December Diddi announced that the Vatican would open an investigation. Wednesday’s meeting was Orlandi’s opportunity to pass along information he’s gathered over the years, and to suggest directions for the Vatican probe.

On the positive side of the ledger, Orlandi emerged saying he believes there’s a genuine commitment to getting to the truth.

“I perceived a desire for clarity,” he told reporters afterwards, saying Diddi had told him “I have a mandate from the Secretary of State and from Pope Francis to shed light at 100 percent, to investigate at 360 degrees and not to give discounts to anybody.”

Orlandi said he ticked off a series of names of current and former Vatican officials who should be interrogated, including:

  • Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who in 1983 was the assessor, or number three official, in the Secretariat of State, and who, according to Orlandi, was a regular visitor to the family’s Vatican apartment after the kidnapping.
  • Domenico Gianni, former commander of the Vatican gendarmes.
  • Giuseppe Pignatone, a veteran Italian jurist and currently president of the Vatican tribunal.
  • Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, a former official of the Prefecture of the Papal Household.
  • Cardinal Santos Abril y Castellò, president of the supervisory commission for the Vatican bank.
  • Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the longtime priest secretary to Pope John Paul II.
  • Archbishop Georg Gänswein, priest secretary to Pope Benedict XVI.

Most explosively, Orlandi, who’s dedicated his life to the search for his missing sister, suggested that her disappearance may have been related to a climate of sexual abuse and pedophilia inside the Vatican in that era, with the potential connivance of John Paul II himself.

Orlandi has insisted for some time that Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis all know more than they’ve ever said about his sister’s case, but of late he’s sharpened his insinuations about John Paul.

“They tell me that Wojtyla [the given name of John Paul II] used to go out in the evenings with two Polish monsignors, and it certainly wasn’t to bless houses,” Orlandi told the Italian TV program DiMartedì after his meeting with Diddi.

Orlandi played a portion of an audio recording he said he’d passed along to the prosecutor, in which a figure described as close to the Roman mafia says that an infamous former mob boss, Enrico De Pedis, had been asked to eliminate young girls who’d been brought into the Vatican for purposes of sexual exploitation during the John Paul years.

At one point, the figure says: “Pope John Paul II used to bring those [girls] to the Vatican, it was an intolerable situation. At a certain point, the Secretary of State intervened to get rid of them, and he turned to people from the prison system.”

In another recent interview, Orlandi described a conversation he said he’d had recently with a bishop about the Polish pope.

“Certainly, if in 1993 pedophilia among cardinals was talked about as if it was something normal and accepted, one can also think that pedophilia went even higher than those cardinals,” Orlandi recalled saying.

“Oh, probably,” he quoted the bishop as replying.

“Maybe you didn’t understand,” Orlandi said he responded. “When I talk about someone higher than the cardinals, I’m referring to Wojtyla.”

“Probable,” he said the bishop replied.

Such shocking claims about John Paul II, now St. John Paul, are destined to create an extremely delicate situation for Francis, Diddi and anyone else involved in the investigation.

On the one hand, Diddi can’t afford the impression that the Vatican is covering up or ignoring potential leads, especially from the Orlandi family. Among other things, new pressures around the case created by the Netflix series, an Italian parliamentary inquest and near-constant coverage in the Italian press would make the backlash against a perceived whitewash enormous.

In addition, because the allegations involve sexual abuse of a minor, appearances of a cover-up could also damage the Vatican’s efforts to regain credibility in the wake of the clerical abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, impressions that Pope Francis and his team are tolerating, even encouraging, scurrilous accusations against John Paul II could provoke backlash of a different sort, especially among devotees of the late pope who already believe Francis has been disrespectful of his predecessor’s legacy.

(As a footnote, this Sunday is the Feast of Divine Mercy, a devotion close to heart of John Paul II, who fixed its observance for the Sunday after Easter in 2000. It will be interesting to see if, and how, Francis makes any reference to his predecessor for the occasion.)

If Orlandi repeats these sensational charges against John Paul II without proof, it’s hard to see how Vatican investigators could continue to take him seriously without, in some sense, appearing to legitimize his claims. Yet it’s equally hard to see how they could shut Orlandi out, having vowed to pursue every avenue to get to the truth.

In other words, Pope Francis and his lead investigator may find themselves between a rock and a hard place, putting new strains on the vim and vigor the pontiff only recently recovered.