ROME—The tall brick wall that stretches around the gardens of the Apostolic Nunciature in the swanky Parioli district of Rome has no doubt kept many secrets hidden over the centuries. This sacred Vatican property and diplomatic outpost, effectively the pope’s embassy, is protected by armed guards. Towering, leafy trees prevent even the most curious observers from peering inside. But secrets do surface and a grisly one led the Vatican press office to issue a cryptic note Tuesday night: Human bones had been discovered buried on the premises.
The Vatican couldn’t keep the story buried, as it were. After the remains were uncovered Monday during renovations, it wasn’t long before word of the discovery was leaked to an Italian journalist who asked the Holy See for clarification about just whose bones these might be. Or, perhaps more to the point, whether they are the bones of Emanuela Orlandi, the 15-year-old who disappeared under mysterious circumstances some 35 years ago.
Orlandi’s disappearance without a trace after a flute lesson near the 7th-century courtyard of Vatican-owned Sant’Apollinare church on June 22, 1983, has enthralled conspiracy theorists trying to determine what happened to her. She was last seen getting into a dark green BMW, but the car was never traced and the daughter of a Vatican functionary was never found.
She had told her sister that she had an appointment with a representative to sell Avon cosmetics before her music lesson, according to police records, though the mysterious Avon lady she met has never been identified.
There have also been numerous “sightings” of the girl over the years, and some of the more outrageous theories suggested that she is being kept as a sex slave inside the Vatican City walls. The Vatican’s chief exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, claimed to have allegedly discovered the secret through his work.
“This was a crime with a sexual motive,” Amorth told La Stampa newspaper in 2012. “Parties were organized with a member of the Vatican gendarmerie acting as the recruiter of the girls. The network involved diplomatic personnel from a foreign embassy to the Holy See. I believe Emanuela ended up a victim of this circle."
Orlandi’s father worked in the Vatican Bank, and another theory about her disappearance is that she was kidnapped to keep her father quiet after he allegedly discovered documents that tied Roberto Calvi, known as God’s Banker, to an organized-crime syndicate. Calvi was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982, his pockets filled with cash and bricks. His death has never been resolved definitively as suicide or murder.
Still another theory about what happened to Orlandi came when her family started receiving mysterious calls from her alleged kidnappers days after her disappearance, promising that she would be released if the Vatican arranged for the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who shot and injured Pope John Paul II in 1981. Eventually, the calls stopped, leaving Orlandi’s family distraught and confused. When Agca eventually was pardoned and released, he said Orlandi was kidnapped by a Bulgarian gang but shared no further information.
In 2012, under direction from Pope Benedict XVI, a tomb belonging to infamous local mobster Enrico “Renatino” De Pedis who, curiously, was buried in the prominent Sant’Apollinare church near where Orlandi was last seen, was opened after another lead suggested that Orlandi had been buried with him. Mysterious bones were indeed found next to the mobster’s, but none belonged to Orlandi.
The missing girl’s brother Pietro, who still lives in Vatican-owned property, has long held the hope that she is still alive somewhere. He writes a blog, has written books, and has led marches to pressure the Vatican to reopen his sister’s case.
“I am sure she is alive somewhere and that the last three popes know the truth,” he told The Daily Beast last year when a local newspaper reported the discovery of an expense report in secret archives that seemed to be related to the coverup and potential burial of the missing teenager. At the time, he pleaded to Pope Francis in a blog post to open the case.
“We have the right to know the truth contained in those documents and if the Pontifical Secret was placed on the disappearance of Emanuela,” Pietro Orlandi wrote. “Please take off the seals that are creating barriers in obtaining Truth and Justice.”
The Vatican is taking the case of the newly discovered bones very seriously. The investigation has been handed over to Rome’s chief prosecutor, Giuseppe Pignatone, who is treating it as a homicide. Police are said to be conducting DNA tests to see if the bones, which are alleged to be those of a teenage girl, match Orlandi’s or if they are a match to another missing teenager, Mirella Gregori, who disappeared a month before Orlandi, in another case that has never been solved.
A police source with knowledge of the investigation says the bones consist of a skull and some teeth, but more excavations on the Vatican grounds will be conducted to see if the rest of the skeleton, whoever it might belong to, is buried there in the Vatican’s backyard.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke tells The Daily Beast that nothing known about the bones at this time indicates they are Orlandi’s or Gregori’s. “We have to wait for the forensics,” he said. But even if we learn who this girl was, the mystery of how she got there will remain.