ROME – Recently a media thunderstorm erupted in Rome when the brother of the “Vatican girl,” referring to the 1983 disappearance of a 15-year-old girl that’s become the  most notorious unsolved mystery in recent Vatican history, went on Italian television to play a recording of an ex-mobster alleging that Pope John Paul II was complicit in a Vatican pedophile ring that included his sister.

The brother, Pietro Orlandi, added: “They tell me that Wojtyla [the given name of John Paul II] used to go out at night with two Polish monsignors, and it certainly wasn’t to bless houses.”

That bombshell triggered a ferocious Vatican counter-offensive, including Pope Francis himself calling the suggestion about his predecessor “offensive and unfounded.” Orlandi has since tried to walk back his words, insisting that he wasn’t accusing John Paul II of anything but rather simply passing along an audio recording to Vatican investigators.

The credibility of the ex-mobster, whose name is Marcello Neroni, is an open question. Italian journalist Giovanni Floris, who’s covered the Orlandi case extensively, said he’d discount any such claims from a “delinquent” by a factor of 10 to 1; another Italian journalist, Alessandro Ambrosini, who actually made the recording in 2009, said that it’s important to remember such criminals often try to “make themselves bigger than they really are.”

Setting aside the Orlandi case and the claims about pedophilia, if the question is simply whether John Paul II ever went out from the Vatican in secret fashion in the company of fellow Polish clergy, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

To be clear, John Paul’s penchant for slipping the surly bonds of the Vatican was known even at the time. In 1983, a reporter named Andrea Purgatori for Corriere della Sera, the most respected newspaper in Italy, published a story with the following title: “Employees of the Holy See: Wojtyla leaves by himself, without telling anybody.”

The gist of the piece was that alarms had gone off in the Vatican one night because someone had gone to the pope’s quarters, only to discover that John Paul II was missing. According to the report, such unexplained absences weren’t terribly unusual, because the Polish pope was accustomed to going out by himself.

(Ironically, that reporter, Purgatori, has gone on to host an highly rated Italian news program called “Atlantide,” and was a major figure in the Netflix series on the Orlandi case titled “Vatican girl.”)

Truth to be told, we don’t need to rely on unsourced reporting to know that John Paul II was in the habit of occasionally slipping out without a fuss. That tendency was confirmed by no less an authority than Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the now-retired Archbishop of Krakow and the longtime priest secretary to John Paul II, in his 2008 memoir My Life with Karol.

In the book, Dziwisz reveals that in the early years of John Paul’s papacy, he took more than 100 excursions outside the Vatican, mostly to natural settings in the Abruzzo region north of Rome. As Dziwisz put it, “In the beginning, no one in the Vatican or in the press knew anything about them.”

Here’s how Dziwisz described out such outing to Ovindoli, about an hour and a half east of Rome by car in January 1981.

The first time was almost like making an escape. For a long time, we’d wanted to give the Holy Father the chance not only to ski but also to immerse himself again in the normal life of the people. Finally, we decided to give it a shot. I don’t remember who originally came up with the idea, but it was probably a collective initiative that emerged from conversation at table … The place we picked, Ovindoli, was suggested by Father Tadeusz Rakoczy (today bishop of Bielsko-Żywiec in Poland), who knew the territory because he used to go skiing in the area. But, just to be safe, he and Father Jozef Kowalczyk (later the apostolic nuncio in Poland) went to scope the place out to make sure there would be no surprises. … We left around 9:00 a.m. in Father Jozef’s car, so as not to attract the attention of the Swiss Guards stationed at the exit of the residence at Castel Gandolfo. Father Jozef was the driver and Father Tadeusz sat in the passenger’s seat, pretending to read the newspaper, which he held completely open so as to shield from view the Holy Father, who was sitting in the back next to me.

Dziwisz went on to recount how on subsequent expeditions, John Paul II would stand in line at ski lifts with everyone else, wearing a parka and goggles, with a couple of monsignors on either side of him to keep prying eyes at bay. Eventually, Dziwisz said, a ten-year-old boy spotted John Paul II and a began to yell “It’s the pope!”, after which they reluctantly accepted the need for a police escort.

What’s the moral of the story?

Yes, Pietro Orlandi, John Paul II sometimes did leave the Vatican in the company of a couple of Polish monsignors, and it wasn’t to bless houses. It also, however, wasn’t to connive in running a pedophile ring … it was to enjoy nature and hit the slopes, in a way that otherwise would be difficult for a pope to pull off.

As the Orlandi investigation proceeds, no doubt there will be other moments in which sensational suggestions are made by somebody. They’ll receive a wide media echo, because the Orlandi case is to Italy what the Kennedy assassination is to the United States, i.e., a mystery with a seemingly infinite capacity to generate conspiracy theories and speculation.

It probably would be wise, therefore, to keep this episode in mind as a caution against going off the deep end before all the facts are at hand.