ROME – In response to suggestions in the Italian media that sexual advances by an uncle might be at the root of the infamous “Vatican Girl” mystery, the family of Emanuela Orlandi shot back angrily in a Monday news conference, charging that the Vatican is trying to duck its own responsibility in the case.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Pietro Orlandi, the brother of Emanuela, who’s dedicated his life to the search for the truth about his sister. “The Vatican wants to offload responsibility on my family.”
The 1983 disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, who was 15 at the time and the daughter of a minor employee of the Prefecture of the Papal Household, has become a national obsession in Italy. Over the 40 years she’s been missing, her fate has generated speculation and conspiracy theories of every sort, much of it focusing on alleged Vatican involvement and cover-ups.
Momentum generated in part by a successful Netflix series on the case titled “Vatican Girl” has led to new investigations both by the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, veteran Italian lawyer Alessandro Diddi, and also the Chief Prosecutor of Rome, Francesco La Voi.
The Italian House of Deputies also has voted to open a parliamentary inquest into both the Orlandi case and that of Mirella Gregori, another 15-year-old girl in Rome who vanished around the same time. That measure is currently before the country’s Senate.
The case took a new twist July 10, when the Italian news program Tg La7 broadcast news of an exchange of letters between the Vatican’s Secretary of State in 1983, the late Italian Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, and an unnamed Colombian priest who’d served as a confessor and spiritual advisor to the Orlandi family, who lived in an apartment on Vatican territory.
In the letters, Casaroli asked for confirmation that an older sister of Emanuel, Natalina Orlandi, had been subject to unwanted sexual advances by an uncle named Mario Meneguzzi, who’s now deceased. The Colombian cleric reportedly responded confirming that Natalina had been subject to “morbid attentions” from the uncle and said she had been “terrorized” by him into remaining silent.
Meneguzzi had hired Natalina to work at a bar he managed and, according to the report, had apparently threatened to fire her if she came forward about his behavior.
The suggestion appeared to be that the same uncle may have made similar advances to Emanuela which went wrong, resulting in her disappearance. Media outlets published old versions of a police sketch of a male sought for questioning at the time Emanuela went missing, asserting a vague resemblance to Meneguzzi.
During a news conference Monday, however, Natalina Orlandi minimized the incident, saying it had taken place five years before Emanuela’s disappearance, that she was 21 at the time and therefore an adult, and that once she made it clear to the uncle that she wasn’t interested, he withdrew and nothing further ever happened.
“We worked together, and he made some simple verbal advances, little gifts, talked about the future we could have, but when he saw there wasn’t any possibility, everything finished there,” she said. “There was nothing more.”
Both Natalina and Pietro Orlandi said Meneguzzi was out of Rome on a family vacation when Emanuela vanished, a fact they insisted was known to investigators at the time.
The Tg La7 report indicated that Diddi had given the letters to La Voi as part of their ongoing investigations, but Pietro Orlandi claimed the motive for making them public now is to shift the focus away from any Vatican culpability.
“Diddi wants a comfortable truth,” he said, asserting that “there’s someone behind Diddi who doesn’t want to get to the truth.”
Orlandi urged the Italian senate to quickly vote in favor of the parliamentary inquest, saying the Vatican fears such a body because it “can’t control” the legislature the way it can a local prosecutor.
A meeting to determine the date on which senators will hold the vote is scheduled for this week.
“I am convinced that this parliamentary commission can reach the truth,” he said.
Natalina called the revelations regarding the letters “embarrassing,” saying neither her uncle’s wife nor his children had known about his advances until they were broadcast on national television.
At the time it happened, Natalina said she had only told her then-boyfriend and now husband about the it, as well as the Colombian priest who she confided in, but no one else, as she did not want her father to be hurt.
The priest, she said, “was a wise person…I trusted him, and he told me to be calm, to be clear, to draw a line. He gave great advice that I followed,” and it ultimately worked, she said.
Natalina said that in 2017 she had been called into the Vatican by Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, at the time the number two official in the Secretariat of State who has since been stripped of his duties as a cardinal and is now on trial for financial crimes, and told that if her brother Pietro continued to insist on the Vatican providing documentation to the Roman investigators, they would have to disclose what happened with Meneguzzi.
Natalina told journalists she was initially offended, but said she told Becciu that she didn’t care, because the situation was over, her family was “clean” and had “nothing to hide.”
However, she expressed anger at the way in which the details of what happened came to the public light, saying no one from the prosecutor’s office nor from Tg La7 had called her for comment or to advise her that the story was coming out, so she had no time to warn Meneguzzi’s family.
“I think of the mother,” she said, referring to her uncle’s wife, who is now in her 90s and to whom she is very close, and who now has to grapple with her late husband’s actions.
Pietro Orlandi said he and his family have sought a private meeting with Pope Francis for years to no avail, but that he wants to speak with the pontiff to clarify what he knows.
He noted that at one point during a brief past encounter, Francis had said that Emanuela was in heaven, which Pietro called “a polite way to say she was dead.” Pietro said he wants to press the pope about how he is so sure of this, and to talk about the case.
Asked if they had documentation proving that Meneguzzi was in fact out of town when Emanuela disappeared, the family lawyer Laura Sgrò chimed in saying that that’s not how the law works, and that “if you accuse someone, it’s you that has to prove that they weren’t there.”
“He wasn’t there, and those who say he was, have to prove it, not the family,” she said, saying this is especially true when it involves someone “who died and can’t defend himself,” Sgrò said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen