After 25 years, a Vatican mystery is back in the headlines


Summer 2008 is chock full of Catholic anniversaries, from the 40th birthday of Humanae Vitae to the 30th observance of the death of Pope Paul VI. One such milestone, however, does not appear on any official church calendars: it’s now been 25 years since the June 1983 disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi, a 15-year-old girl and Vatican citizen whose fate has become one of the most enduring Vatican mysteries of the 20th century.

The case is back in the headlines this week, with the discovery of a gray BMW which may – or, as is seemingly always the case with the Orlandi story, equally well may not have been – the car used to abduct the girl and to transport her after she vanished on June 22, 1983.

Orlandi was the daughter of a layman who worked in the Vatican gift shops, so she and her family were citizens of the Vatican City-State. Shortly after she vanished, callers purporting to be her abductors demanded that the Vatican release Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who shot Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. John Paul made a public appeal for her safe return, and the Vatican’s Secretary of State at the time, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, even installed a special phone line to speak directly with the alleged kidnappers.

In the end, however, no convincing proof was ever offered that the callers actually had Orlandi, and the girl never resurfaced.

In the years since, the Orlandi case has been linked with virtually every unsolved mystery in modern Italian life, from spectacular banking scandals in the 1980s, in which the Vatican was an important player, to occult dealings of the mob. Orlandi herself has become the Jimmy Hoffa of the popular imagination, with purported sightings, or rumors of her whereabouts, vying with speculation about where her dead body might be found. In May 2004, for example, Italy was briefly riveted when a free-lancer photographer claimed to have spotted a grown-up Orlandi living quietly in an apartment overlooking the Vatican, but the lead eventually fizzled.

This June, the story took yet another turn when Italian authorities reopened their investigation after a new purported witness came forward: Sabrina Minardi, the ex-wife of an Italian soccer star, who later went on to become the girlfriend of a notorious mafioso named Enrico De Pedis.

According to accounts in the Italian press, Minardi told investigators that De Pedis, who was gunned down in Rome in 1990, had kidnapped Orlandi on the orders of Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, an American who at the time was the head of the Vatican Bank. Marcinkus later stepped down after the financial scandals of the mid-1980s erupted. He retired to Arizona, where he died in 2006.

Minardi offered vague, but salacious, suggestions that De Pedis had been involved in procuring girls for Marcinkus, delivering them, according to her account, to his Vatican apartment. (Her story was termed “obscure and unhinged” by one Italian daily, which did not stop the paper from publishing a detailed account of it.) Minardi also recounted once being asked by De Pedis to drive a crying, hysterical girl named “Emanuela,” sometime after Orlandi’s disappearance, to a gas station located on Vatican grounds, using a gray BMW – the same kind of car Orlandi was seen entering on the afternoon she disappeared after a music lesson. Minardi said they were met by a monsignor driving a Mercedes with a Vatican license plate. Minardi claimed that Orlandi was later killed, and that De Pedis placed her body into a sack which he tossed behind a cement mixer in the Roman beach area of Torvajanica.

It’s indicative of the seemingly endless appetite for speculation that the story told by Minardi, a confessed former drug addict, made international headlines without any hard proof.

For its part, the Vatican has expressed grave doubts. Spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi issued a statement in June saying the accusations had been aired “without being subjected to any examination,” and that they come from a witness “of extremely dubious value.” They amount to an “unfounded defamation” of Marcinkus, Lombardi said, who “has been dead for some time and cannot defend himself.”

Since June, investigators have been scrambling to try to confirm, or debunk, Minardi’s story.

This week, another witness provided a potentially telling bit of evidence – the whereabouts of the gray BMW described by Minardi. It was located in an underground parking garage at Rome’s Villa Borghese, where it had been abandoned in 1991. Even more tantalizing is the fact that, according to ownership records, the car once belonged to an Italian businessman charged, and later acquitted, of complicity in the death of Roberto Calvi – the financier at the center of the Banco Ambrosiano scandal, who was found hanging under London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982. Among other things, Calvi was an associate and business partner of Marcinkus and the Vatican Bank.

According to Italian media reports, investigators are hoping that a physical examination of the car may yield some clues to Orlandi’s fate, but so far nothing has emerged.

The Vatican, in company with the CIA, the Freemasons and the Trilateral Commission, acts as a magnet for conspiracy theories of every imaginable variety, so it’s likely this won’t be the last twist to the Orlandi story. In the meantime, Italian authorities have not provided any timetable for when they expect their re-opened investigation to be closed.

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